Each day’s drive home from work is indistinguishable from the next. I stare through the frames of my dark sunglasses at the barren Mississippi highway with my windows down, filling my lungs with the sticky, sweltering summer air. My left arm hangs down the side of the car, drumming along to the beat on the reflective metal. My right hand idly guides us along the flat, straight strip of concrete, constantly trying to minimize its contact with the scalding leather steering wheel. Beads of sweat materialize on my brow and trickle down my neck. Yesterday, as countless rows of corn and soy beans elapsed my fleeting vision, Atmosphere’s “Sunshine” came blaring through the stereo. If you haven’t heard this song, the chorus goes:
“Sunshine, sunshine, it’s fine
I feel it in my skin, warming up my mind,
Sometimes you gotta give in to win,
I love the days when it shines, whoa let it shine…”
I could have used any number of song lyrics to make a statement about this summer, but as I reflect on my experience as a whole and what I’ve learned, I think Sean Daley’s 2007 hit comes closest.
For the past seven weeks, I’ve been working as the director of a summer youth program in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Overall, everything has gone really smoothly. We’ve had many refreshing, positive breakthroughs as we taught our students about healthy living, sustainability, literacy, world cultures and entrepreneurship. On good days, I am filled with hope and joy for these kids I’ve developed close relationships with.
But with every storybook moment comes a shocking step backward. For instance, none of the students could correctly label the seven continents. None of them could even point to Mississippi on a world map. Not even the 7th graders.
Grammar, literacy, sexual activity and food quality are also major problems in the lives of these elementary schoolers, as a result of issues ranging from the non-existing economy of Mound Bayou (there are literally less than five currently operating businesses) to frustrating inconsistencies within the school system here. Families in Mound Bayou are trapped in disastrous cycles of hardship and poverty. Reform, especially for education, is needed dearly.
For me, it’s hard not to want results. I see the injustice and automatically want to help bring about change and equality. Not to mention, ever since the 6th grade, my success has been quantified by numbers, positions and awards. This summer, I have spent hours and hours each day preparing creative and interactive lesson plans, but I’ll likely never see the results of my efforts here. And that’s something I’ve had to come to terms with and accept. My perceivable results come from day-to-day interactions and small glimpses of growth. I’ve had to stop worrying so much about improving test scores and solving problems, and instead, focus on being there for the students when they need someone to talk to, or being a positive role model.
And so with that in mind, this summer has been successful. I have gotten to know the culture and community here. I have developed close relationships with the students in my program, and have been working to build up their self-esteem and learn from them. I taught a curriculum that I felt was important and I exposed the students to topics they probably won’t ever cover in school. The kids responded with enthusiasm and energy. That’s all I could ever ask.
On a personal note, I think I’ve become a better version of myself this summer. I’m a better team member, I’m more honest and more real with people. I’m more confident and self-assured. I’m happy and I feel good.
However, as the song lyrics go, I had to give in to win. I had to let go of my result-oriented perspective and learn to measure success through the little moments. Yesterday as I sat outside in the parking lot on a foldable metal chair (to the dismay of my co-workers) and ate my lunch, I realized that my good days this summer were sometimes measured through simple, humble joys, like witnessing immaculate rays of sunlight. I love the days when it shines.