Today, I became Mr. Sean.
You see, I began volunteering at an elementary/middle school in the heart of Milwaukee. Having lived in Brookfield for a good chunk of my life, I realized what a bubble Brookfield is, and I mean this in the best way possible. It’s a clean, safe place where everyone is incredibly caring and courteous. It’s the kind of place where I can comfortably sleep with the door unlocked. This volunteer opportunity was not just steps, but miles out of my comfort zone. Walking to the school from the bus stop, I had to put away my iPod because I was terrified someone might mug me (which, in retrospect, was a foolish and presumptuous thing for me to think).
I got there at about 2 p.m., just in time to help a kindergarden class get ready to leave for the buses. The teacher introduced me to the class as Mr. Sean. That was kind of a “wow” moment for me. For an instant, I was back in my size 8 shoes and Kids Gap overalls, looking up at Mrs. Stephanie. I remember looking at high school students like they were deities, gods looking down upon me. It seems this was a common theme throughout my childhood: when I met anyone a handful of years older than me, they became my role model and I wanted to become like them.
In second grade, I had fifth-grade reading buddies. To this day, I remember them being incredibly tall, mature and cool. For some reason, I remember them being the size of college kids, though I’m sure they were striving for the five-foot height barrier. I wished I could grow up as quickly as possible so I could be like them some day.
Now, standing in front of the classroom full of 5-year-olds saying in unison, “Hello Mr. Sean,” I realized how much people change.
My first duty was to collect garbage after snack time. While I walked around (hunched down so the basket was low enough for them to reach), I simply sang the word “garbage” once and the whole class started laughing and imitating me. For the next 10 minutes, kids throughout the class scoured the floor for any scrap of paper they could find as an excuse to come up to me and sing “garbage!” It was so humbling to see such innocent, tiny children find real happiness in something so trivial. I had a really hard time believing that I, too, was like that, once upon a time.
Later, I helped out at the after school program, where I sat in a room full of middle school kids and tutored them in math. There was one boy who had particular trouble with (and particular dislike for) his math homework. For about an hour, I sat with him teaching him how to use the order of operations. I could tell he dreaded math, but just by sitting there and doing his homework with him, I began to sense him opening up to math, wanting to do more and more. When it was time for him to go to gym, he begged his teacher to let him stay behind and just do a couple more math problems with me. Now, anyone who knows me knows that there is nothing I value more than a love for learning. The moment that I realized I was able to connect with a kid and get him enthusiastic about math I wanted to cry. I could not have been more honored.
Afterward, during the break session, I was invited to a game of kickball, where the kids fought over me and begged me to kick first (though I got out on my first kick). For them, it was an awesome thing to have a high schooler on their team. For me, I felt awesome just to be picked first for once. But they all looked up to me. When they slid into home plate (a big sticker on the floor), they came up to me, hoping for a high five and enthusiastic approval.
Just when I thought the day could not get any better, it got worse. While I was tutoring another kid in math, I heard an 11-year-old brag about drinking. Thankfully, an older 13-year-old kid chastised him. He said, “You’re 11! You can’t drink!” and followed with, “You have to be 13 to drink!” One of their teachers stood there next to them, seemingly apathetic to this horrifying exchange of words.
Although it’s likely they were just saying things to look cool, as every kid their age does, at that moment, I knew why I was there. I was there not to just teach math and play kickball, but to be a role model. If I wanted to be as cool like a high school kid when I was little, I’m sure they wish the same. And really, that’s all that anyone could really ask for. I grew up in Brookfield where almost everybody is an excellent role model — parents, peers, teachers… you name it.
It seems in all of my blog posts so far, I end with a strong statement and a call to action. Well, here is my plea for the week: fellow high school students, middle school students, and even fifth-graders, don’t forget that what you do matters. Don’t forget that there are people looking up to you and that there is another kid somewhere who wants to be just like you. It’s an honor we are blessed with, and a blessing we should never waste. Be the kind of person you wished you could be when you were in their (very, very small) shoes.