Monday, November 23, 2009

My Service Learning Birthday Present

I never considered myself spoiled as a child but my parents did everything under the sun to make sure that my siblings and I never wanted for a thing. Birthdays and Christmas were designed specifically so dreams came true. Every year. Without fail. And this is probably why on my 15th birthday they gave me a gift that forever changed my life.

My birthday just so happens to fall on April 25, and on this particular day in 1992 Berkeley, CA was celebrating Christmas in April. But this celebration turned out not to be about presents. On the morning I turned 15 we got up at the crack of dawn, dropped my siblings off at Grammy’s, and drove to a falling-apart house in a falling-apart neighborhood. There were swarms of people all around the house with shovels and paint and saws and brushes. For 9 hours that day I worked alongside my Mom and Dad fixing up this place for a poor, wheel-chair-bound, old lady.

I will never forget discovering how to measure and cut wood for a ramp, learning about lead-poisoning as I scraped away old paint, imagining the stories behind the unfamiliar pictures that hung on rusty nails throughout the house, feeling shocked that someone had to live this way… but mostly I remember the beautiful cacophony of all these strangers working joyfully together to do something kind for a woman none of us knew. What a gift to witness such a thing at the ripe old age of 15.

I can honestly say that this single day transformed my understanding of what it meant to be a human among other human beings. I had always been taught to be kind to others, but I had never really thought about the heights to which this lesson could be taken. This was more than sharing with my siblings, or inviting the unpopular girl to a party. This was more than being polite or waiting my turn. This was truly giving of my time, energy, and thought to another person –without any expectation of anything in return. And it felt really good.

Nearly twenty years later I find myself working as an educator, on behalf of educators – and I know the life choices that led me to this vocation began with the simple seed of that experience. When I consider the long-term effects of that single day - I often wonder what would be different in our country if every child started his or her 15th year this way.

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