In my 23 years of life (except for maybe in the infancy of my existence) I have always been someone who defines things. I thought there was more clarity amidst the chaos of life if I was able to put a name or a label to something which created an established and understood expectation. Defining something often gave me a sense of direction or a purpose. In college I knew exactly what I defined myself as and therefore knew my purpose. I was a student-athlete. That title in college had an obvious definition: study hard and work out harder. I knew my purpose because of that definition from my title. Except for a few moments of the typical I’m-almost-graduated-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life reflection, knowing my role in college and among my teammates and friends helped me feel like I had a place and a purpose that mattered. I’m not really sure why, but I never thought about what it would mean when I graduated and lost that title.
It wasn’t until a conversation I had with a former teammate of mine that I began to acknowledge the reality of graduating and the loss of my then current role. When I tried to define myself I no longer had any means by which to do so (or so I thought). I had attained so much validation from my previous title in college that a new one in the workplace didn’t feel quite right. Becoming a volunteer meant I would be receiving a new title and a new role, but this was one I could not yet define and it was frightening.
When I began as a volunteer I struggled with my placement. I was told what my job was and what I had to accomplish but the means to the end were a mystery me. I was out of my comfort zone. I found myself defined by a title I never thought I would have: high school tutor. I studied business and I rowed fast and I thought that was what I was capable of. How could I share the knowledge and power of those things to high school teenagers whose main goals were to pass their state exams? Turns out I was defining myself by the wrong qualities. There was so much, even as a college graduate and accomplished athlete, that I had to learn about myself and it is by these teenagers that I have begun to understand exactly what defines me. Watching how much these students have to take on both in their lives outside of school and within their academics has given me a new perspective about the things that are truly important. Their title is student and most people look at these kids and define them by what they have to do in order to succeed in school. What I’ve learned from them is that what they have to do to succeed and survive outside of school is what truly defines them. By watching and experiencing them deal with their own struggles to break free of their titles, I have been liberated to break through mine.
I am not just a tutor and they are not just students. In this journey of volunteering no singular title could encompass all that I have been a part of. There is so much more that I did not know I would or could do being a ‘tutor’ that has made it possible for me to achieve greater heights within this school. Everyday there is a new challenge that makes me question what my purpose is but there is also something or some student that reminds me each day why my time here matters. Because the truth from what I’ve seen is that it is not what we can teach them about a mathematical theorem but about the possibility of things that can be achieved when they work hard and commit to something. Their trust in me to help them is not something that I take lightly. There is so much I have learned about myself because of them. I can only hope that I’m making as much of a difference and impact in my student’s lives as they are making in mine.
I am rewarded daily by the relationships I have established with my students. Even on difficult days they challenge me to be better. By expecting more from them I expect more from myself. Every day that I come to work I am given another opportunity to do something new, to teach something in a different way, and to talk to them about whatever is troubling them. They have taught me to be creative and trust myself. There is so much more I can do for them and with them than my job description includes. My title may be tutor, but by these kids I am so much more than that.
Mari Irby is a 1st year LV serving at Bishop Loughlin Memorial HS in Brooklyn, New York and is a 2015 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California.