K.J. Moran, author, is a corps member serving at Ketcham Elementary School. She will attend The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in the fall.
There’s a supposed trajectory in life after high school, an ingrained expectation: we advance straight to college, choose careers, get married, produce offspring and die. Presumably, there are other bits in between, but these are the highlights of our roadmap to existence.
A gap year after high school? That wasn’t marked on my map.
Yet, here I am, 447 miles off course, spending my gap year sleepless in service to the third grade. While most people take the exit straight to college, I felt the uncomfortable desire to take a detour. I saw a career in service waiting for me a few exits away, so I resolved to find a shortcut.
I made my detour with City Year, a non-profit dedicated to pooling the efforts and energy of 17-to-24 year-olds to serve as tutors and mentors in the 12% of schools in the United States that produce 50% of our dropouts. Interventions in attendance, behavior and course performance target students who have fallen off the path to graduation and give them a map back to the right road.
For me, school involved 14 years of traipsing through school hallways, collapsing with the immense emotional weight and back injuries that come with the burden of knowledge. Atticus Finch’s problems in English class ran into the struggles of fifth-period American history, and I was overwhelmed with the pressing dilemmas of high school, such as What-Can-I-Have-For-Dinner-When-I-Think-Look-Like-A-Teenage-Walrus, or When Can-I-Possibly-Sleep-When-I-Do-Ten-Million-Extracurriculars-and-5-Hours-of-Homework-Each-Night, or the ever classic Does-She-Like-Me-Do-I-Like-Him-I-Think-No-One-Likes-Me-What-Do-I-Do. Somewhere between the hours in the classroom and the trees brutally massacred for my education, I realized there were problems heavier than the ones on my own back. Our world is denser than my backpack ever was, and I had spent far too long worrying about the weight on my own shoulders. It was time to take the load off of someone else.
While I graduated this past May, one million of my peers did not. Every 26 seconds, a student in the United States gives up on education – and that’s a problem interconnected with thousands of others I never had to face. I never had to worry about my next meal. I never had to make sure my mom had enough to pay the heating bill. I never lived in a world where centuries of systematic racism had left me in the cold where people expected nothing from you because nothing is what you had.
Those were never my problems; mine were mostly hypothetical, yet I still had the best teachers to show me how to solve them. My education was a journey, and I was never alone.
Now, it is my turn to join someone else’s journey. I serve because the road to high school graduation is unpaved and littered with potholes; I want to hop in the car with students who have fallen off the path. No roadblock should keep a child from success. I will be the roadside assistance they need, the map they sometimes forget, and the loving, human GPS giving directions from the passenger seat. Each child deserves a passenger who will not give up on the journey after hitting a pothole or running out of gas. I will change that flat tire and walk two miles to the nearest gas station, so long as the driver gets where he or she wants to go.
Right now, I sit patiently in 30 different cars. We are going about 2 miles per hour, but we’re moving. My kids will get there, and they know I am along for the ride. They trust me to be their map and guide. As one boy once told me earnestly, “Miss KJ, I’d trust you to take my car all the way to California.”
I hope we get that far, my boy. I hope we do.