It’s Wednesday afternoon. The sun filters through the windows. Everyone hovers around each other, stuck in that silent moment of nervous anticipation right before the school bell rings. “They’re coming,” another volunteer jokes, and there’s laughter all around, as the hallways outside the room come alive with noise. It’s an understanding sort of laughter – shared excitement, yes, but also an acknowledgement of unpredictability. Despite plans and preparations, each session is ultimately a surprise. None of us can ever truly know what to anticipate, though that doesn’t keep us from looking forward to it.
When I first applied for a volunteer position with the Racing Readers program, I didn’t know what to expect. The application itself was never a question; I love reading, working with children, and meeting like-minded peers. Fitness was a different story! Relay races, running laps, and running games were things that I hadn’t engaged in since my own days in elementary and high school – but hey, if these kids could power through it, surely I could too. At the pre-program training session for the Instructors, everything seemed straightforward: the ice among us strangers was broken, the volunteer manuals had all been distributed, and we had all been thoroughly coached in the basics of discipline and mentorship. There was only one variable left unknown, though perhaps the most important, and that was the children themselves – the heart of this program, upon which everything hinged.
Eight months snuck up behind us like a shadow, and we all parted ways from the program for the summer. There’s a lot I didn’t expect. I couldn’t have imagined all the adventures I would have at the start of this journey back in the late autumn 2014. Now, the main thing I think about is how much I miss it. Of course, each session was often wild with the hustle and bustle of preparations, and the planning did pose new challenges every time, but there’s something special about being part of a child’s life, no matter how brief. Sharing your wisdom, serving as a role model and giving support whenever needed are amazing experiences.
Although my role was to help the kids I also learned a lot. Of course, I expected to hone my organization and teamwork skills, to grow more comfortable in the role and responsibilities of a leader, to adapt to the constantly changing needs and pressures of the position – and I came away with all that. I did not expect to become a mentor. I did not expect to be the one offering insight into the kids’ everyday situations and guiding them along their individual paths. Although I took on this mentorship role, I have ended up being a receiver just as much as a giver, for just as children have their own potential waiting to be stirred, they have the capacity to find that spark in others as well, and engage with it.
In my experience at the program, nothing has floored me as much as that feeling of being surprised by the very kids I thought I was supposed to be teaching. They shared some worldly knowledge, for instance, when the students in my group earnestly explained to me the celebrations of their culture. They would even open up to an individual level by talking about what they were reading or sharing what they learned in class that day. Something that really impressed me was their ability to be creative in improvisation. There was one time when a student sang us a song she had written right there on the classroom floor in mere minutes, and we all listened to the low, lovely swell of her voice in awe. I picked up on other things, too: how to engage better in natural, genuine conversation, unmotivated by anything besides the delight that comes with connection. I learned how to better catch cues of boredom, discomfort, or unhappiness, and how to reconcile them accordingly. I even learned how to be a positive influence through even just the simple gesture of listening, and letting others know that they have a voice and that they are heard. And most of all, that the forging of even a mentor-student relationship is founded on reciprocation.
Once the program ended in June 2015, I couldn’t help but yearn once more for that hint of unpredictability. I missed those few hours a week that would send me into a frenzy of organization and supervision, but would also let me have fun, and leave me free. It’s the element of surprise that we can emerge from what we have been confined to – the lull of acquaintanceships, first and forever impressions, the strict labels of teacher and student on opposite sides of the classroom – and still surprise each other, inspire each other, discover each other and ourselves. It was a privilege to work with such engaging students. I can also proudly say that as the Racing Readers program takes off to new heights, I’m more than willing to go along for the ride.