Reflecting back on orientation and the tour of Rochester, how have your assumptions/preconceived notions of Rochester been challenged since your service has started?
I have been a “socially-conscious,” “civically engaged,” “progressive” idealist for a long, long time. (Well, relatively speaking, considering I my mere twenty-two years.) I have drank a lot of the “change the world” inspirational Kool-Aid. Not only have I drank it, I have gone to BJ’s, bought it in bulk, stirred it up and served it to others. At this point in my life, I have come to a very important discovery; I hate Kool-Aid. It has zero basis in natural flavors; it rots your teeth; it gives you a tremendous sugar rush and then you crash like a seven year old half an hour after the birthday party is over. And, you undoubtedly will feel bad the next day, utterly confused why on earth you drank Kool-Aid in the first place. Overall, it sucks.
Please don’t get me wrong. I still consider myself an idealist and have a strong desire to do my part in changing the world for the better. My problem is more with the use of catchphrases, generalizations and overall superficial, but still heartstring-pulling anecdotes. They certainly inspire us in the moment. We are on cloud nine, completely empowered and ready to take on the world’s injustices. But they cannot sustain us. We will crash-it is inevitable. For me, I have had the high (and the consequent low) too many times to get caught up in the “ra-ra-shish-coom-bah”s that tend to accompany any meeting meant to inspire a group of activists.
For this reason, I was not overly enthused to for my orientations in Philadelphia and then in Rochester. I was expecting the worst kind of mind-numbing, hypnotizing gobbledygook, but what I found is a diverse group of empowering, real people- people that had faced real obstacles and were not always triumphant in their endeavors. While there was a good amount of “be the change you wish to see in the world”-type keynote addresses, there was more substance and subtlety to the orientations.
Since those first days, days at the RCSD Central Office have been their own breed of enlightening. The politics here are frustrating, confusing and omnipresent, but that is the reality. Good intentions get mixed up with practical methodology. That is the reality. There are very few “good guys” and “bad guys” (but there definitely are some); it is not as simple as just trying to make a difference in the lives and futures of kids.
And to bring it back to the actual prompt, Rochester is not as simple as we would like to convey it. The neighborhoods are diverse. The kids that go to our schools are diverse. I have had many people tell me that RCSD is really just a glorified day-care service (and not a good one, at that). I have had another (a former teacher in the district) tell me that we should just shut the whole school system down. A lot of the numbers/statistics/test scores/truancy rates/graduation rates support this view. At the same time, I have seen teachers that love teaching and love kids, and I have met many kids that love learning and love schools. Rochester has its set of challenges, but it is not a deficit-based community; yet there are so many people lacking basic resources. What I am trying to say, but am struggling to, is that Rochester is a complicated set of contradictions and I am still working on figuring out how so many different realities can exist within one community.