Sunday, April 24, 2011

Teaching in the Tenderloin

Today we hear from another former political science major, Caroline Fischer, class of 2010. Caroline is volunteering with AmeriCorpts, in San Francisco. Here is her note:

“I think it’s in your best interest to press charges, Ms. Fischer. The only thing that may happen is that he will get the help he deserves.”

It wasn’t the first thing I was expecting to deal with on my Monday morning, but it was the Tenderloin, and it wasn’t the first time a man high on crack gave me a hard time. It was, however, the first time a man attempted to punch me while walking my students back from PE.

It has been exactly nine months that I have been working for AmeriCorps as a 5th grade social studies teacher and TA in San Francisco. The story I mentioned above, is just one of the many incidents I have faced on a day to day basis as a volunteer.

My name is Caroline Fischer and I am a recent graduate from Saint Michael’s College. While attending SMC, I explored a wide-variety of extracurricular activities to satisfy my social palette.

Hailing from New Haven, CT, I was looking for a way to make my freshman year a little less challenging on the friendship-front. Joining the woman’s lacrosse team was one way in which I expanded my athletic and multi-tasking abilities. Being part of a team helped ease the challenges of “starting over.”

Over the next four years at SMC, I desired something more than just a physical obstacle to overcome and I decided to throw myself into my true passion: social justice and politics.

Being a Political Science major at SMC might have just been one of the most enriching aspects of my college career. Living just a few blocks away from Burlington, VT; a place where college students and social movements align, I felt as though I was in the perfect place for cultivating a rich sense of social responsibility and putting it into action.

During my time at SMC, I became involved in the Obama Campaign, studied in Salamanca, Spain, mentored a girl from Somalia and interned for the Department of Children and Families. These wonderful opportunities were all brought to me through Saint Michael’s College.

It’s pretty incredible to look back at my experience in college and realize that much of what I did was encouraged by my professors. That’s what makes SMC so different from other schools, because apart from being an intellectually stimulating environment, we are also a place that promotes justice and social awareness.

After graduating from SMC, I had made the decision to do a year of service. I spent most of the spring applying to the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, and when I was finally offered a position, I decided it wasn’t exactly the right fit. I did, however, find the right fit in June 2010, when I joined the Vincentian Service Corps, a volunteer program supported by AmeriCorps, located in San Francisco, CA.

In mid-July, I stuffed all of my unkempt belongings (while listening to Scott McKenzie’s “If youre going to San Francisco,” of course) into several bags and came out west. I moved into a relatively spacious apartment with four other women—all living in an intentional community and living in solidarity with the poor. I was told that I would be working at an elementary school in the heart of the Tenderloin. At first, my best guess was that this area had some of the finest meat in the neighborhood. I would soon learn, however, that this area wasn’t known for its fine meat, but rather its poverty, highly potent crack and conspicuously present prostitution.

Over the past nine months I have worn many different hats on the job. I’ve done everything from curriculum mapping to giving parenting advice. I have had to file a report against a man who attempted to assault me outside of the school because he was high on crack. I’ve become the school watchdog—asking people to take their syringes elsewhere so I can walk my students to PE.

I have found that the experience and knowledge I have gained isn’t typically something one might have acquired in your average “entry level job.” Indeed, I have faced many troubling realities, such as our rigid economic disparities and our plunging literacy rates. However, with all the frustration comes a great deal of appreciation for education. Most importantly, my desire to have a hand in the future’s education. If I can look back on this experience and remember just one thing, it will be that my future did start here: at De Marillac Academy, located in the Tenderloin of San Francisco—a place that Captain Joe Garrity (on the Tenderloin Community Advisory Board) describes as a “complex, yet beautiful community…full of saints and sinners.”

Earning a personal stipend of $125 a month has presented its challenges, however, it has paved the way for a rewarding career path that I might not have ever found. It’s my hope that I can encourage other seniors to follow a similar path. To take on a year of service that might not be the most financially lucrative route, but one that will certainly provide a lifetime of lessons in the “real world.”

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