I recently had an encounter with a fifth grader that I would describe as a swift push back into reality for myself from the busy and bustling world of elementary school. This particular student happens to be from Baghdad, Iraq and is an English Language Learner or ELL student. He is a bright student and uncannily quick despite the language barrier.
The whole scene went down while I was helping him with his homework during the Beech St. 21st century after-school program. This is where I learned where he was from and about the languages he spoke; That’s right, languages! He was fluent in both Turkish and Arabic, not to mention well on his way to being a proficient English speaker all at the age of 11 years old. My first thought was one of amazement at this bright boy who would grow up with three languages under his belt where I, who was born in the U.S., have lost the ability to speak Spanish, the language my grandparents brought with them to this country, and only speak English. This realization paled in comparison to the next one that dawned on me.
This boy is from Baghdad, the very heart of a country where a war has been raging for almost the entire length of his life. This is a country I studied about in college, I had a class specifically about the war in Iraq, I even took a class on terrorism and had studied about insurgencies. Then I realized there is a high likely hood that he and his family were still in Iraq while the war was going on. They may even be here, because of that same war. This boy is not alone, there are many other children from Iraq and Afghanistan at Beech Street Elementary as well. With this in mind I went on with the rest of my day with a much bigger perspective on things. The next day I was reading some news articles, one caught my eye. It was about the rampant pirate activity in Somalia and hi-lighted the collapse of government there. My next thought was the fact that two of the girls in my class at Beech St. are Somalian. In fact, there is a large number of Somali children at Beech. I and several other corps members had even been learning a bit of Maay Maay, one of the common dialects found in Somalia, from them. Many of these kids families probably sought refuge in the U.S. to escape the chaos of their homelands.
It was a strange feeling for me to think about how I interact on a daily basis with the children of such war-torn countries. I had obviously known the whole time working at Beech St. that there were many children from refugee families. In the same token, I had studied and heard all about many of the countries and problems they came from, but it had just not clicked in my mind that these smiling faces and playing children were connected to and affected by these horrible things I had read about, heard about in lectures, discussed and been told about on the news.
REALITY CHECK time. It brought to mind the big picture of things in this world that need positive change. It also spurred in me a desire to work harder for the kids of my school. My work can make a difference for the lives of these kids and contribute to a positive change for New Hampshire and then (combined with efforts from corps members all over the US) the whole country. Perhaps, by affecting these kids from war-torn lands my work can even have an effect on a global scale. A bit of a stretch, I admit, but who knows maybe one of those kids will go on to inspire a positive change for their homelands that desperately need it. Imagine it! A ripple of momentous magnitude caused, in some small way, by my effort. But that is the nature of ripples they are started by the smallest action and build up to something much larger, much grander than the initial action.
At this juncture it seems important to talk about the idea of ripples and their relation to City Year. The concept of ripples is much more than tossing pebbles into a pond. The idea is that many distinct acts of courage and belief create ripples on the surface of society which together can build into mighty currents of justice and positive change. It reminds the idealist that they are not alone in their struggle for positive change in the world and their cumulative effort with others can have a dramatic impact. The concept is essential to what City year does and Ripples happens to be a Founding Story of City Year culture. The story itself finds its beginnings in a speech made by Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1966 at the University of Capetown in Capetown, South Africa. The speech reads as follows:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation…It is from numberless diverse acts of courage…and…belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
So in concluding my thoughts on this reality check, I urge all you idealists out there to cause ripples where ever you may be. There is no telling where those efforts might go or what good they could cause in the future.