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AMERICORPS Reflections

Reflections on a Year of National Service

~October 2011~

Editor's Note: This is the third year that an AmeriCorps or VISTA member from the Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team has written a reflections column for Volunteer. Ellie Klein has written for Volunteer Today for this past year. She is off to teach in Spain, but will continue as a columnist for VT. See Spanish Reflections. Thanks for penetrating columns each month. We wish you well. These columns are a reflections of the impact that volunteering has on someone's life. Enjoy.

Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team. Established in 1995, the Federal Way AmeriCorps program works to strengthen the Federal Way community through academic tutoring and modeling an ethic of service.

AmeriCorps members in Federal Way serve full time in the Federal Way Public Schools. In addition to tutoring students and developing before and after school programs, members manage two community tutoring programs, implement civic engagement community projects and serve in area service projects. AmeriCorps members also recruit and train community volunteers. For more information on their programs http://www.fwps.org/dept/volunteer/acfw.html


“I laugh myself”


“I laugh myself,” Sally says emphatically as she smiles and points to herself. I quickly understand Sally is trying to say, that with her own hilarious jokes and five-year-old wit, she causes herself to laugh. In my Spanish classes we learned a lot of verb tenses, but one of the ones we all had the most trouble with was the reflexive – verbs in which the subject and the object are the same. We have this in English too, but it is much more prevalent in the romance languages. The literal translation I found for the reflexive was “I (subject) wash (verb) myself (object).” When I saw this I couldn’t help but smile and think of the way Sally, a native Spanish speaker, had extrapolated this common structure to the verb “to laugh.” But her intention was right, she does indeed, cause herself to laugh. As I have been reflecting on my year in AmeriCorps, I have thought about how positive my students were. Despite the troubles they may have had at home, the generations of poverty before them, and the challenges yet to come, they did make themselves laugh. They were funny, they were kind and most notably, they were happy.

Although you cannot choose every circumstance, or react favorably in every situation, we do have a remarkable amount of control over what we do to ourselves, often more control than we know what do with or would like to admit. When someone is mean to us, the justified mind says get angry, get frustrated, get revenge, but the more rational mind knows that such visceral responses might not actually be the right thing to do. When that little voice in the back of your head says – “why throw a temper tantrum?” we shove it away saying “No! I am allowed to be upset by this!” Yes you are allowed, but is it necessary? Is it beneficial? Feelings are valid, but controlling your emotions rationally is more powerful and fulfilling.

laughing people

One of the most important lessons I learned this year was just because under all the reasonable circumstances you could be angry, does not mean you have to be. In fact, you can choose to respond rationally, peacefully and kindly as you realize another person, or thing does not control your own worth and sense of self. Time Magazine wrote one of my favorite articles entitled “Temperament Factor” in the fall of 2008.  In it, the authors tell a story of Barack Obama when he was six years old and had just arrived in Indonesia. The local boys were wary of him and in an attempt to haze the future president, threw him into a lake without knowing, or asking, if he could swim. Although Obama could, and perhaps should, have emerged upset, sad and terrified, instead, he came to the surface laughing.

What is this reflex that makes us think Obama should have been angry? When we pause and step back for a moment, what benefit would have come had he hit the boys who tried to hurt him? And how amazingly self-aware and down right awesome is it that the six-year-old laughed off someone else’s hostility? Whatever experience you enter, approaching it positively will undoubtedly serve you better than approaching it negatively. This can feel frivolous and certainly fake, but when you look at those around you, who are the people you look up to, respect, and admire? Is it those who walk around complaining about every single woe, or those who despite the many challenges, transitions and downfalls of life, are able to remain positive? These people do not hold an ignorance towards all the evil in the world, but rather an acceptance of reality and conviction in their own self worth. Complaining about what's wrong will not make everything right, and ignoring things that require change will not either, but rather carefully choosing your battles and presenting issues rationally instead if rage fully will allow for compromise and progress.

The other day in a yoga class, the teacher asked us to take a deep breath in as we quieted our minds. She told us to let go of the stories we had been told that day and the stories we had been telling to ourselves. That line stuck with me - the stories we had been telling ourselves. In a time of closure as I ended AmeriCorps, said goodbye to my students and a new group of friends, had a break-up and moved out of the house I shared with my best friend – I had been telling myself a lot of stories to make sense of it all. I am currently reading the Social Animal by David Brooks and in the opening pages, Brooks writes “The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make sense of what the unconscious mind is doing of its own accord.” We create stories to make sense of our lives as we try to construct the random to seem planned. We tell ourselves that one thing happened because of another and our reaction to the given situation was justified, but perhaps our lives are not that casual. You do not have to do anything, and you most certainly do not have to get upset when you would benefit from staying calm. One of the best pieces of advice our AmeriCorps director ever gave us was to “fake it until you make it.” Although I definitely have not perfected the process, the times that I did - the times that I was the bigger person, stayed positive, controlled my reflexes and laughed instead of yelled - were undoubtedly the times I was happier in the moment and able to move forward without regret. As I begin my job in Spain and life after AmeriCorps, I take this lesson with me and instead of reacting to situations in the way I think I should, I now practice responding in the way I want.

Ellie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. She is currently serving with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at Decatur High School and volunteer at the Westway After School Program where she tries to engage students in learning through personal reflections and cross-content understandings.

Corporation for National and Community Service

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