That Face

I’ve been working at the Opportunity Center for several months now, and while it is certainly one of few jobs I’ve had that I’ve really, really cared about (and not just because most longest running job before this was a courier for a law office) but I still have hours/days/weeks where I look at the mutinous face of a formerly adorable tween and wonder “What am I doing here?”

I spend much of my time wondering if I am actually making a difference in a life. Just one. As you may have guessed from my previous posts, I am highly emotionally motivated, and not feeling a connection, a purpose, with any of these kids was eating me alive.

In fact, after several disatrous field trips and increasingly bad behavior from said kiddos, my boss and co-workers and I decided to cut back on the enrichment (i.e. the fun part) and focus solely on academics.

I did not have high hopes for this, although I knew it was necessary.

It’s funny how people can surprise you, though.

As it’s optional for the kids to come to the after-school program, we have seen the predicted dwindling at the new, stricter standards (we’re even talking assigned seating. The horrors) but some of the kids, the more, er, shall we say rebellious ones, have actually been showing up and doing well.

There is one boy, we’ll call him J, who, at 11, is already much bigger than me and has often been kicked out of program for disruption, fighting, making girls cry (and that has almost included me), even throwing furniture (well, one of those small little chairs they have in preschools. But still) and the like.

When he came into program last Thursday, and gamboled over to my table, where his assigned seat is, I did not have high hopes.

“What is this, a school?” He wanted to know. (He hadn’t been there all week and was clearly not a fan of this new regime).

After a quick explanation and a warning that he had to behave if he wanted to stay (my exact emphasis) I waved a few worksheets in his face to give him something to do.

He unenthusiastically picked a spelling one (a boy after my own heart) and when I came to check on him later, he was easily circling all the correct answers.

Thrilled, I went to get him a harder one, still involving spelling, and when I was correcting this one, marking several wrong while still showering him with praise, when I saw it.

That look. The one I needed to remind me why I do this, the one that made every other bad interaction with a child or co-worker or boss completely worth it. Every minute of my crappy commute.

That sounds dramatic, but I don’t have very many moments like these.

(Does anyone? Legitimate question).

I saw J’s face, I saw him soak up the praise and want to quickly show me he could correct the wrong answers quickly. I said something corny like, “How come I didn’t know how smart you are?” and instead of the eye roll I was expecting (I would have eye-rolled) he looked delighted and shy.

J did really well the rest of the day, and I was so proud of him I almost grabbed him in a hug and danced.

I didn’t, of course; I try to be a professional most of the time.

But still.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.

I’m so grateful for this moment, and I’m going to hold it with me for the rest of this year, and probably my life, and whenever I ask myself “What am I doing?” I am going to remind myself to remember that face.

Even if, as with some of the kids, it’s one step forward and two steps back, and this may happen with J, I’ll know that he has that face in there somewhere.