My name is Gustavo Lang Jr. Ask me who I am and I’ll readily tell you I’m a self-proclaimed “Real Idealist” from Miami, Florida. I am a PROUD Hurricane (having graduated from the University of Miami; I love people and new adventures, and I firmly believe in the power of positivity—that being kind changes lives. What I wouldn’t be as likely to say is that I am the youngest of three siblings, a first generation of US Natives, and the first in my family to attend a University. When I came to City Year, my motivation was a lot about internal self-betterment and progress towards my eventual future, colored with a hue of service. But now that I’m in the thick of it, that less-thought-of fact about myself has become more salient, informing my take on why what I do is important.
I serve at Shaw Middle School at Garnett Patterson. It is a school—like many others in which City Year serves—fraught with challenges. Challenges that have made me ever more grateful for what I’ve come through and where I am.
Because working with my students at Shaw, I see now what I didn’t quite see when I was their age: how incredibly surrounded I was in my middle school by a lot of the same problems and challenges that they are facing now. But I have also had such moments of frustration because I look around me at Shaw Middle School and I see in every student one common thread that ties them all together: potential.
There are two students in particular in whom I most clearly see the contrast between what an outsider might perceive them as being capable of, and the reality that I know: Matt and Russell. Matt is a 12-year-old 6th grader who has incredible difficultly staying on task. In a typical math class, you’ll probably find him tuning out, eyes focused on some distant object only he can see, or with his head down, in either case oblivious to the world despite being perfectly awake. Otherwise, Matt is talkative and distracted, at times even removing a sock from his feet to use as a puppet that speaks in his stead. Russell is also a 6th grader, one who seems too small for his build. And yet, he is full of energy: Russell spends more time focused on an airborne pencil as it flies from his right hand that threw it into his left that lunges forth to catch it than he does on his English work…a fact that is not too surprising, because Russell, despite having just turned 13, can hardly read and write. An outsider peering through the wired-glass window of the closed door they stand behind may see in these two students nearly every typically spouted statistic about at-risk kids in a failing schools, including how in the 6th grade, with their behavior, they have only a 25% likelihood of ever reaching high school graduation.
But what I see, on the inside, living within their classes, working with them day after day in small groups, talking with them one on one, and during conversations in the back of the class or in the halls, is something else entirely. I see in Matt an active, creative, and insightful mind that sometimes moves too far, too fast, for him to keep his attention in one place, but that can absorb, digest, comprehend, and connect math and literature on a much deeper and more complex level than the majority of his peers. I see in Russell a very bright young man with so vast a wealth of background knowledge and experience so as to ALWAYS have a story or thought to connect to the matter at hand, but who finds himself perpetually frustrated at his inability to express those notions. Incredibly downcast due to an acute awareness and understanding of his own limitations, he wants so much to overcome them and seeks every moment of success in which to relish.
I see SO much potential. And in my work with Matt and Russell, I’m slowly beginning to see it bloom into reality. And it makes me so happy. Because these kids are not as lucky I was, to not see the stark reality of the world that surrounds them. But I can give them a bit of what I had—people who loved and cared and pushed me toward my full potential, working to help me unravel the keys to my success, helping me through my failures, while teaching me that every opportunity is one for growth, and that I can do it. Because they can do it. And I can, in this year, make a significant difference in the lives of at least these two, that they can carry with them wherever they go. And maybe one day, when you ask them who they are, they’ll say not where they came from or how they “should” have been based on their school or their home or their struggle. Instead, they’ll proudly say what they believe in. They’ll say what they’ve accomplished. They’ll say who they are.
Gustavo Lang, Jr. is a corps member on the Walmart Team serving at Shaw Middle School.