Friday, September 28, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors: An AmeriCorps Tale

Note: I've gone ahead and changed names and altered the accompanying photo for the sake of story's characters, since I don't necessarily have permission to write about them like this. I'm hoping that if they see this story, they'll take it in the spirit of fun it's intended to have.  

It'll end too soon if it ends at all
I don't worry now, 
The friends of summer'll be the friends of fall. 
"It'll End Too Soon," Crooked Still

In 2009, I signed up for an AmeriCorps program. I was fresh out of college, graduating into a stagnant economy with a degree in not-science, not-medicine, and not-any-other-field-where-you-might-actually-get-a-job. I wasn't bitter about this: college was awesome, and I was happy about having studied linguistics, with a minor in more linguistics. But I needed a job, and AmeriCorps had positions, so I took one.

When I showed up for training, one of the first lessons I learned was how to talk about AmeriCorps when people didn't know what it was. "Whatever you do, you shouldn't really say 'It's like a domestic Peace Corps.' AmeriCorps has a very different set of goals, structure, and kind of activity from the Peace Corps." Instead, I was supposed to mention that AmeriCorps is a government-sponsored program that provides a way for Americans to dedicate themselves to a period of service to their fellow citizens.

Typically, talking about my experience would go like this:
SOMEBODY: "What're you up to these days, man?"
ME: "Oh, I joined an AmeriCorps program this year. Do you know about AmeriCorps?"
ME: "...well, it's like a domestic Peace Corps."

For real, anything else was a mouthful, and people's eyes tended to glaze over when I tried to deliver the approved spiel. But just so you know: AmeriCorps isn't really all that much like a domestic Peace Corps.

I was charged with co-leading a team of people in an elementary school. We were supposed to tutor kids in reading and to run an after school program, and occasionally we'd put together a school-wide event of some kind. That was pretty much it.

It sounds simple, but it was actually really tiring, frustrating, challenging work. Part of the trouble was the fact that we had long days (7:30 to 5:30, if I recall, with a half-hour lunch break) and that working with kids can be super draining. But most of the trouble came from the fact that we were a bunch of oddball misfits who didn't really get along.

How all these strange peopleand I include myself in that descriptionended up on the same team is a colossal mystery. There was Harriet, the dreadlock-sporting conspiracy theorist and probable stoner; she wore sunglasses inside a lot, and tried to teach children that milk was bad for them and would give them asthma. This upsetJosh, the Republican Jew law-school applicant, who regularly employed questionable tactics in engaging children, including using military history to teach his 4th graders reading andmy personal favoritetaking a child's chips and eating them in front of him to emphasize that the child should not bring food to tutoring sessions. He was also very fond of dodgeball, due to its being his sole opportunity to peg children with dodgeballs without repercussion. To his credit, though, we all ended up fond of dodgeball. For the same reason.

Next to Josh's spot in our room was the one belonging to Elena, our Hispanic lesbian with a fondness for making non-school-appropriate jokes when kids weren't around. In fairness: the whole team was fond of this; it became, over the course of the year, a game to try and make me blush at lunch hour. Leela was Elena's right-hand girl in inappropriateness, but also would get real stone-faced if things started to get out of hand. It helped us keep it together, sometimes.

There was Alice, our fairly straightforward, Christian gal, who was the "old lady" of our group, mannerisms, memory, speech patterns, and all. There was my co-leader, Carrie, who took things a little too seriously, seemed to have home issues she couldn't unburden herself with, and, um, lied. Like, more than I was prepared for. She lost the team's faith a lot sooner than she lost mine, perhaps because I'm a sucker and can't spot lies and half-truths very easily.

King of lies and obfuscation, though, was Ulysses. Ulysses was a gay black man with an extreme fondness for Beyonce Knowles and matching his shoes to his outfits. He was noteworthy for his tendency to take creativity too far, like, say, crafting elaborate board games for his tutoring students, but then not really using them to teach them to read, which is what he was supposed to be doing. If he was confronted about this sort of thing, he'd throw up a verbal cloud of smoke and retreat, sometimes to the cafeteria. He once drew fire from the school administration for teaching children the "Single Ladies" dance from the eponymous Beyonce music video, but by that point in the year I was too far gone to ask him to account for it. His explanation would have involved too little sense and too much leaving the room to hang out with the cafeteria staff, and I wasn't up for it.

We did have one normal, everyday-seeming guy there to balance us out and help us stay even-keeled. His name was Peter. He left the program after a week with us.

This team was often a frustrating group to work with. There were days I would show up and feel that the group had just stopped a conversation, not wanting me to hear what they were talking about. They would accuse each other of not working or being inappropriate when I wasn't around. They generally acted in ways I found confusing. There were months in my year with them where the general smoke-and-mirrors feel of it all left me unsure who to trust or what to do.

Late in the year, though, I had bigger troubles, when two terrible months-long developments came to a head on the same day.

It was April, and a couple months before I had invited a former professor from college, a Deaf woman, to come talk to my students about Deafness and Deaf culture. She agreed to do so, but to get her to come, I had to hire an interpreter. I got a woman named Rebekah to agree to come, on the condition that she be paid $50 an hour, a sum which staggered my mind at the timemy AmeriCorps stipend was $250 a week. Fortunately, the school agreed to pay her; she said she'd like to be paid in 30 days, the school admins said that'd be fine, and that was that. My professor came, the interpreter interpreted, the kids had a good time, and everything was grand. Rebekah worked for 2 hours and was owed $100.

A month passed, and one day I got a concerned text message from Rebekah, asking about being paid. I talked to the school admins, who said that she had some paperwork that needed to be processed, and it would be a little while longer before she could be paid. I texted this to Rebekah, who was not happy about it.

This situation repeated itself several times; each time, I'd get a text (and they grew angrier and more vehemently accusatory each time) from Rebekah, I'd track down an admin, and they'd tell me that her paperwork was still processing. Once, Rebekah asked for the school's number so she could call and complain; I gave her the number on the school's website. It turned out that this number was no longer in use, so Rebekah accused me of trying to keep her from talking to the school and getting her money. I started loathing my phone, fearing it: any vibration could be another threatening, spiteful text message from this woman, which added immeasurably to my stress level, usually high enough from corralling children and my team.

The other issue was my co-leader, Carrie. Carrie was a stalwart servant and passionate leader early in the year. Unfortunately, she got stressed easily and it started to show. By this point in the year, she had lost the team's faith for lying about where she was and what she was up to when she should have been workingpretending to have sick relatives or job interviews when she was really at home or out on the town, that sort of thing. She had also gotten in serious trouble with the organization for getting caught breaking a fraternization rule. And then one day in April, I got a call from my boss, saying Carrie had been demoted. Carrie had been caught in a pretty big lieshe'd decided not to tutor a student for months and lied about it to me and the schooland had been demoted from team leader to regular team member and suspended from service for a week. I was now on my own as the leader of this team. And not just the only team leader, but a leader of a team where everybody hated one person, Carrie. So it was a bad day.

The day as I climbed the stairs to our classroom in the school, I got that call from my boss, Rebekah texted me. She said that she was fed up; she accused me angrily of denying her what was rightfully hers, and said that if she didn't get her $100 very soon, she would sue me for it. Not the school: me. I about broke down in the stairwell with terror and anger.

That day, I sat with my team at lunch, and I gave them the news about Carrie. They were angered by it, but unsurprised: they'd had their suspicions that Carrie was neglecting that student. I also told them that I was super-stressed, and had been for a while, about Rebekah, and that she was threatening to sue me and that everything was terrible.

And then my team made it all seem okay. They told me I was the team leader that they actually trusted and liked, and it would be okay if I was their only team leaderbetter even. And they made sure I felt like Rebekah wasn't going to be able to mess with me anymore. In an inappropriate way, sure: they told me they'd be happy to give Rebekah a beat down; I just needed let them know where to find her, and they'd take care of it. But seriously, Josh chimed in, there was no way I could get sued for $100; for one thing, court costs would eliminate any benefit. Besides, Ulysses pointed out, she really should have worked those measly 2 hours for free. We all practically were.

And so, in my dark hour of need, my inappropriate, obfuscatory, strange team came through and lifted me up, and helped me realize that things weren't so bad. At the finish, Rebekah got her money, we got through our year, and everything ended up all right.


  1. James yo, it's about time I discovered these bonus stories of yours. I remember that crazy time in your life, thought you handled it admirably.

    It's really cool getting a little more context on the characters involved. I love the asthmatic milk, the chip retribution, the normal guy... who left after one week, the make-James-blush game, and the smoky language surrounding the paragraph on the craftily pseudonym-ed Ulysses.

  2. Nice picture. Possible caption: "James the Warrior" or "Champions" or simply "Domestic PeaceCorps"