This week, our school is participating in our annual pick-a-thon. Each day, one class of students goes out into a local orchard and picks apples and pears instead of going to class. All of the fruit they pick is donated to a local organization called Northwest Harvest who then distributes the fruit to food banks throughout the state of Washington. The event serves as both a fundraiser for our school (the students are asked to get people to sponsor them just as you would for a walk-a-thon) and also an opportunity for our students to give back to the community.
For those of you who may not know, apples are a kind of a big deal in Yakima. Think of how New York Yankees fans feel about Derek Jeter. That’s pretty much how Yakima feels about its apples. Many of the families in our school own orchards or are in some way involved in the agricultural industry. It has become common place to come home from school to find a bushel of apples just chilling on the counter that have been bequeathed to us by generous friends of the Brothers.
I chose to share this with all of you not only because I am kind of inexplicably proud of our apples, even though obviously, I actually have nothing to do with how great they are nor because the agriculturally based economy of central Washington is an often over-looked topic in even the most rigorous Lasallian schools, but because this event has really captured the essence of my experience as an Lasallian Volunteer thus far.
If you had asked me what I thought I would be doing as an LV even a few months ago, I can pretty much guarantee that working in the fields with 50 sophomores would have been at about number 87 on the list. I mean it definitely would have been above chasing a tortoise down the hall to keep it from accidentally blowing up the science center with the propane tank that had gotten stuck to it’s shell by the hose (which definitely happened last week), but well below teaching students about nutrition (something actually listed in my position description!).
Growing up in the suburbs of San Diego and going to school in Durham, North Carolina, I can safely say that until this week, I had very little harvesting experience. So, I started the day just as clueless as all of my students. I spent a solid 5 minutes trying to figure out how to untangle the straps of my fruit bag to get it on all the while getting asked an endless stream of questions that I didn’t know the answer to: “Ms. Mattoon, how do I get this on?” “Ms. Mattoon, how do I set up the ladder?” “Ms. O’Malley (names are hard for them), where does this go?” “Why is this apple shaped like a butt?” “What’s for lunch?” Or my personal favorite, “Why don’t you know how to do this? Aren’t you the teacher?”
I can assure you that this was not the first time I had been asked this question while teaching at La Salle. I have found that when you are a student, the expectation automatically becomes that your teacher knows absolutely everything about absolutely everything. I think some of them truly believe that simply by standing in front of a class and writing your name at the top of the whiteboard you are imbued with some sort of mystical omnipotence. And you know if I am being perfectly honest, there may have been times while I was a student when I had similar thoughts. However, now that the roles have been reversed, I can say with absolute certainty that this was one of the ever so rare times in my life that I have been wrong.
There have been countless times this year when I have had absolutely no idea what I was doing in my work at La Salle and just had to figure it out as I went along. Fortunately, I have been blessed with incredibly understanding students who have been patient with me even when we got locked out the weight room during PE class or made multiple wrong turns on the way to after school service. All of this has shown me that how much I have to offer as an LV is in no way determined by what I already know, but rather by what I am willing to learn.
At the end our apple picking adventure, it wasn’t the vague guesses that I made to answer my students’ questions that had the potential to impact their lives. It was the fact that I was standing in the mud next to them, wrestling with my apple bag, pulling sticks out of my hair, and strategizing with them the best way to reach the last apple on that ridiculously awkwardly positioned branch. It wasn’t my extensive knowledge on the genetic and environmental causes of variations in apple color (unfortunately, yes, I do have extensive knowledge on that topic), but rather my willingness to learn right along side them, to have cold hands, a sore neck, and muddy shoes so that they wouldn’t have to harvest alone.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends his followers out to “go out and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Unless it was somehow lost in translation, this great send off into a life of service didn’t exactly come with a detailed instruction manual, but my experiences this year have made me realize that this was probably on purpose. I think Jesus wanted us to figure it out along the way, he wanted us to make mistakes and have to start over and to struggle and fail and through this learn how best to love and serve. He knew that learning through experience would cultivate humility and patience, that it would give us an endless supply of funny stories to tell over dinner, that it would give us the courage to go where we were needed most, and that it would ultimately help us to grow into the people we were created to be.
Emily Mattoon is a current first year LV serving at La Salle High School in Yakima, Washington and a 2013 graduate of Duke University.