Once they’ve got you in South Carolina, literally a thousand miles away from home, they do warn you that you might find yourselves in situations where you have little to no privacy, and where sleeping and eating conditions are less than desirable; but mostly, they regale you with tales of heroic national service and personal growth until every beat of your bleeding heart is jumping at the chance to put on that uniform and go save somebody’s day.
At long last, you get your first assignment. You’re going to tutor poverty-stricken children in Jackson, Mississippi. You pack everything you can fit into your backpack, jump in the van, drive for 15 hours, and finally, after months of waiting, day-dreaming, and training, you arrive at your project site.
And that’s where the dream ends, and you and your ideals are suddenly living in the great inner-city of reality.
You unload your van into a local church’s community center. You all unpack in one big room. You all set up cots in this room. You will sleep, wake, play, eat, read, get ready for work, and live with eight people, in this one room, for two months.
You have eight very different personalities in your room. And you are never… never away from them. Everything you have to do in your week, you do with them, and in unison. You sleep and wake up next to them. You brush your teeth with them. You make your lunch, ride to school, wash your clothes, work side by side, exercise, eat all your meals, and everything else – with them. The next time you will be alone in the bathroom, will be at Christmas time.
The temperature will drop to the thirties. Your room has no heat. You have an Americorps issued thermal sleeping bag. It breaks. You have designated a teammate as the official spider, roach and mice point of contact.
You live down the street from a homeless shelter, and are pretty sure someone is sleeping on your porch at night. Occasionally, someone will just wander in to get out of the cold or use the light.
Cars drive by the house across the street slowly, but never stop and you joke that they are trying to buy drugs, and that your neighbors are crack dealers. You come home from your school’s talent show, and find eight police cars surrounding your neighbor’s house with rifles pointed in the windows, and suddenly the joke isn’t funny anymore. The next day at school, a teacher who caught the evening news tells you that it actually wasn’t a drug bust, but a manhunt for an at large murderer coming to a close.
Every night you hear loud popping sounds outside, that you affectionately call “firecrackers,” but that send you scurrying back into your room from outside. When you're setting up your cots, everyone sleeps as far away from the big glass doors as possible.
You are still helping the poverty-stricken children, and packing supplies for Katrina victims on the weekends, and generally saving the world. You have attained your ideals. But with them, comes so much of the real.
You remember a few months ago, worrying that Americorps would turn out to be a year long summer camp, worrying that you’d be coddled, and that you wouldn’t get the chance to address the truly serious problems in the country. You smile at yourself as you fall asleep in your frigid room in inner-city Jackson, and you feel satisfied. Satisfied to be right in the middle of the pain; to sleep and live in the places most people avoid.
This was your dream.
A picture of our street and yard on Thursday night. Every car in this picture is a police car. We counted at least eight, three of them with rifles on the roof, pointing at our neighbors house. The nearest officer told us, only that "Home would not be a good idea right now."