I fancy myself a person in control, though I balk at the term “control freak.” Sure, I routinely sought leadership roles in undergrad; yes, my reflex is to initiate conversation when in a group; and it’s true that anyone who dares skim my Google Drive will find a spreadsheet for the initial road trip from South Bend to Philly with my then-brand-new roommate Whitney that scripted a playlist, podcast, or album for each hour.
Daily, I choose to live within the comfy illusion that I have control over the many ninth graders in my classroom, but in many ways, teaching at Cristo Rey through ACE has been a long-form introduction to the gradual release of control – feeling the reins loosen and being okay with it.
But one place where I hoped to not surrender control was driving to and from Saylor Grove for cross country and track practices after school. Look on Google Maps and you’ll find Wissahickon Creek, an unexpected gash of green space in the densely packed rowhomes of North Philly where my runners and I log our mileage. Look closer and you’ll see my white knuckles on the steering wheel of a 15-passenger van edging around double-parked cars and down narrow one-ways.
Earlier last fall, when I first began to make these drives, the vibe in the van was silence. I know few Philly radio stations, let alone ones that would build my cred with the runners in back. The “What did you learn today?” question only has so much purchase, and I was not about to share Whit and I’s spreadsheet. Little did I know that the quiet wasn’t only grating me. One day, as we packed in, Kevin – a senior captain of the team – snapped.
While Kevin’s a four-year veteran of the team and extremely hard worker, he’s most comfortable wearing a veneer of indifference. Ask him about his day, and it’s often, “Whatever.” That day though, a paraphrase of his outburst might read: “Everyone’s telling me to be a leader, build culture, and whatever. It’s too quiet in here, so now we’re going to talk.” Then, from the shotgun seat, he turned to interview every other member riding in the car from his fellow seniors, Malik and Amere, to Elisa, a painfully shy and now mortified freshman. It was unexpected, a bit abrasive, and glorious.
Ice broken, ball rolling, we were off to the races. Community began to grow in the seats behind me. In the rides that followed, Malik would claim each song on the radio was “his song” only to forget nearly every word. Chioma chose to rename me “Ethan” for no apparent reason. With every pothole, Amere would dock me half a star on Uber, while Kennith recited traffic laws to prepare for his learner’s permit exam. Finally, everyone was talking, and I had the kindling to build a community out of these quiet runners at last.
But it was integral that the spark for this community came from beyond me. Learning from Kevin’s outburst, I began to deputize students at every turn. Elisa, now DJ O-Z, is responsible for queuing up Spotify to time our plank workout. If I leave a group to finish stretching, I may come back to find them taking turns leading the counting, alternating between Spanish, Igbo, French, and English (sometimes in a bad British accent). Best of all, the wrap-up of each practice features an open mic where anyone can shout out anyone, and without my two cents, nearly every person receives the praise they deserve from the voices that matter most – their teammates. So, when it comes to community, I’ve found it’s often best to let others take the wheel.