Life Lessons from the Smallest (And Shortest!) of Sources
By Jennifer Higgins
Is it just me or does life seem a bit inward facing nowadays? There’s this continuous need to update your status, check the social goings-on in your feed, post a picture or even in my case, see that my mom, the most loyal friend I have, has yet again liked something I posted. (Love you, Mom!)
With so much content available, most people, like me, have a hard time not getting lost in it all. What I think this alludes to, or really what my heart tells me, is that there is a true longing to be seen. To have your voice heard. To derive some type of meaning in a world constantly in motion.
Why I say this, is because that exact longing is something I’ve felt at multiple points in my life, and yes I know I am only 26. But needing to fit in, look a certain way, be a certain way, really just feel accepted, is such a part of being young. Especially now, with social media so integrated into our lives. I see more and more of our youth dealing with the same struggles.
This brought me to Austin Bat Cave.
I found out about ABC through a dear friend of mine who knew my love of writing and suggested I volunteer. What pushed me to sign up wasn’t even necessarily about writing, but was instead the organization’s mission to help younger individuals find their voice and lovingly push them to share it with the world. Something that is so necessary for people to learn early on.
From elementary to high school, ABC offers a wide array of uplifting programs that impact all age-groups in the Austin area. I chose to volunteer at Hillcrest Elementary with 4th and 5th graders during their afterschool hours. This program, which meets every Monday afternoon for two hours, stood out to me because I remember being ten and eleven. It’s hard. You’re not a child, but you’re also not a teen. You’re kind of stuck in this awkward, in-between stage and what I hoped to do over my first year was help kids find confidence and reassurance in who they are and who they could become as adults.
I will admit I was a bit apprehensive because I didn’t know the first thing about teaching and the idea of it scared me to death. However, I did have passion. A passion for reading, writing and more importantly, a passion for helping children grow in a positive way. That had to count for something, right? And if all else failed, I did have a co-volunteer after all.
During my first year, we came up with all sorts of writing activities for the kids. From creating timelines of their futures to finding metaphors in songs, and even writing plays from the villain’s perspective, we continually pushed our group to think about writing as a means of self-expression. We also wanted to teach them that writing could be about anything and found in different places, not just a book or classroom, but through the songs they listen to or other day-to-day activities. We wanted them to know writing could be…*gasp*… fun!
In the beginning, our students were incredibly shy and hardly wrote or even said a word. I think I should have purchased some stock in sticker brands due to how many I bribed students with that first year! As time passed though, I saw more breakthroughs happen with my kids. Small and subtle, almost like a flower opening its petals and blooming. A kid would raise their hand and remember something we taught them, prompting another student to also join in the discussion. From there, the kids would help include our shyer students, who were often our ESL kids. What I found was our Spanish speakers loved to write, they simply had a difficult time doing so outside of their native language. Not wanting them to feel left out, I sought to work with our bilingual students to help translate pieces so that everyone could understand and appreciate their work. Seeing that collaboration, especially one child, whose face beamed with pride after writing 3 pages in English, touched my heart more than I can say.
Now I won’t lie. Volunteering isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. There are hard moments where students can frustrate you. However, when you see the joy in a child’s face because they feel accepted, hear a student tell a story out loud for the first time, or even give them an opportunity to read their pieces on the radio, all of the time and effort become worth it.
Moreover, what I’ve realized, especially now that I am about to end my second year at Hillcrest, is that any of what I’ve tried to teach my students doesn’t compare to what I’ve learned in return. I’ve seen a child sell crafts she made to pay for gymnastic classes and students from different backgrounds work together peacefully, all while receiving endless amounts of unconditional love simply because I was there, giving them my time.
Who knew valuable life lessons and wisdom could come from the smallest (and shortest!) of sources? I’m just thankful Austin Bat Cave gave me the opportunity to do so. Because trust me, remembering how to be curious, how to laugh at yourself and even just doing a cartwheel properly, which are often forgotten in adulthood, are really where you find life’s meaning.