I lied flat on my back; the boat was slowly drifting across the water. The lake’s glossy surface seemed to radiate moonlight. Like the frosty tips of tiny icebergs, the stars refused to be consumed by the immense black sea that was the night sky. The muffled voices of my friends, lost in conversation, and the gentle hum of the pontoon motor were barely audible over the silent stillness of the water. I filled my lungs with the crisp night air and closed my heavy eyelids. This midnight boat ride across Lake Tuscaloosa was the first time I allowed my racing mind to stop and reflect since beginning my summer internship two and a half weeks ago.
For those of you that don’t already know, I’m directing a seven-week youth enrichment program at St. Gabriel’s Mercy Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi for 1st-7th grade students. This historically significant town, the first in the U.S. founded by freed slaves, is home to just over 2,000 people. However, what used to be a vibrant cultural downtown area has been reduced to a cluster of dilapidated buildings with tattered lettering etched on their sides and broken windows boarded with rotted wood. As far as I know, there are only three operative for-profit businesses in all of Mound Bayou: a burger shack, a pottery shop, and a convenience store equipped with a deep fryer.
I’m living in an apartment on Delta State University’s campus with five other college sophomores, two from UNC and three from Duke. Delta State is located in Cleveland, Mississippi, which features an odd assortment of establishments, from pawn shops to indie cafes to monogram stores (yes, you read that correctly…) They even have a beloved FroYo store called Delta Dairy, which we’ve become more than acquainted with. Cleveland is definitely not what came to mind when I first imagined where I’d be living this summer, but having a Wal-Mart and Kroger within walking distance is definitely convenient.
The contrast between where I live and where I work is somewhat unsettling. It feels strange to retreat to Cleveland each night, fleeing the poverty, hunger and sky-high unemployment rates of Mound Bayou for coffee shops and upscale fitness centers packed with Teach For America employees. It’s too comfortable, too accommodating, too familiar. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely appreciate life in Cleveland, and I really enjoy spending time with my housemates (on that note – Joanna, Jacob, Mehul, Jacqui and Rachel, if you’re reading this, you’re awesome and thanks for being so friendly and welcoming). Maybe I’m just overanalyzing the situation, but I definitely feel some sort of guilt about it all.
On a different note, my youth program is going pretty well so far. It’s been exhausting and time-consuming, but exciting nevertheless. Jacqui and I have planned out units for each week, including things like environmental sustainability, business/entrepreneurship, world cultures and literacy/art. We just finished the first week, which we called “About Me” and taught about healthy living, psychology and goal setting. Our main goal is to expose our students to things they normally wouldn’t come into contact with in their public school system. The experience has definitely been a struggle so far, especially discipline, lesson planning and feeling a lack of tangible results from our efforts, but it’s the little things that make it feel worth it. One student wrote about her aspirations to go to college and support her family, setting goals to study every night and pay attention in class. Another day during warm-ups, one of the little boys wrote “I appreciate my family and getting to see another day of sunshine.”
I feel a lot closer to the community here than I did at the start, and I’m definitely getting a real sense of the Delta culture. I’m just trying to soak everything up and experience all that I can while I’m here.
I’ll go ahead and wrap this post up before I ramble on for too long. Everyone in my apartment has already gone to bed and it’s only a matter of hours before my alarm will interrupt my sweet, sweet sleep and bring me back to the reality that I have work early in the morning.