AmeriCorps Week "Today’s Homework: Submarine Sandwiches, Basketball, and Lightsabers for All"
In honor of AmeriCorps Week 2019, we are celebrating how our ACE Teachers are transforming the lives of the students they serve everyday in schools across the country. Follow along on our social media accounts and share your own stories with #MadeInAmeriCorps.
This story was originally published for the April 2018 ACE Newsletter.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Liam’s eyes fix on the clock above the blackboard.
Still no sign of one of his students.
“He showed up late if he showed up at all. Not just a few minutes, like right after the bell, but I mean 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. every day,” Liam Driscoll (ACE 24, Denver) remembers.
Some of the students in Liam’s class face challenges many of us can’t imagine – homelessness, incarcerated parents, and instability each way they turn.
“One child would come into school and fall asleep because he would be up all night taking care of his little brother, just one-and-a-half years old,” says Liam.
Dr. Brian Collier (Faculty, ACE Teaching Fellows) remembered visiting Liam’s classroom. “Mr. Driscoll really had his hands full with the rest of the class. I saw one child amp up his antics, but Mr. Driscoll calmly and quietly kept re-directing him, showing tremendous patience and love. If you ask me, a saintly amount of both of those things.”
“Yes, he was disruptive, but I have several other kids that have traumatic home lives that lead them to act out in class, too.”
One child is different. “From the start, he was incredibly open. Of all those kids, he was the one who needed help the most, yet he was one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. In the face of all the adversity, challenges, and stressful situations he was so upbeat and confident. It was almost humorous how confident he was,” says Liam.
What would draw a 21-year-old, tough former college lacrosse player from Massachusetts to walk for even a minute in the shoes of an 8-year-old, underprivileged child?
The importance of belonging to an extended family community through lacrosse and four years at Xaverian Brothers, an all-boys Catholic high school in Massachusetts, “had a profound impact on my development as a student and as a person,” says Liam.
At the College of the Holy Cross, Liam chose to major in religious studies and Asian studies with a concentration in peace and conflict. “That allowed me to center myself around social justice,” he says. But right after taking the GRE, having not done as well as he had hoped, his parents encouraged him to go the safe route and work in New York City. Liam says they told him, “You’ve given enough of yourself, please just get a normal job.”
“I was so emotional and upset. I didn’t know what to do,” says Liam. His sister Lucy graduated from Notre Dame in 2013. She put Liam in touch with two of her closest friends, Elizabeth Jen (ACE 20, Sacramento) and Connor Geraghty (ACE 20, Los Angeles), who had graduated from the ACE program. He also spoke to Mary Pickens (ACE 21, Richmond) and Andrew Whittington (ACE 21, Chicago). “They talked me through what ACE was all about. I was totally hooked on the program.”
Hooked, yes, but now what tools did Liam have to reach out to his students?
Meatball subs to be exact.
“I didn’t start with, ‘You’re not doing your homework. You’re not showing up to school. You’re gonna have to stay after!’” says Liam.
He added a touch of finesse.
Liam said to one, “I know how great of a guy you are, so between you and me, I am going to offer to keep you after every day. We’re going to do homework for an hour and then we’re going to play some sort of a sport and then I’m going to walk you home.” That’s essentially what he’s done every day since.
“It was our little deal,” Liam says. “If he gets his homework done five days in a row, we’ll eat lunch together and I’ll get him a Subway sandwich.”
“I thought this was all attention seeking behavior,” says Dr. Collier, “but lo and behold in a few short days he had earned that lunch and Mr. Driscoll followed through.”
Following their agreed upon after-school program, Liam walks him to his grandmother’s house. “It’s about a 15-minute walk there and then about a two-minute walk back because he just goes so slow! We have these conversations, the same conversation almost every day . . . he quizzes me on who his favorite players are, who his favorite teams are . . . It’s been so funny,” says Liam.
“He is totally awesome. He’s such a great kid. It’s amazing. Why would he be happy? Why would he have this positive attitude? And yet he brings it every day and he has an incredibly strong disposition. He engages in class now and his hand is shooting up. It’s really moving,” says Liam.
“I’m so into it by now, that when I watch him every day I don’t always see it, except for those monumental days when I test him a little bit and realize, ‘Oh my gosh, that was awesome’. People who deal with him only once or twice a week see it and say there’s major shift in his ability to be present, in the way he carries himself and takes care of himself,” says Liam.
Does anyone else want in on the deal?
“A few other kids have started to stay after, too, and they’ll just chill in the classroom and do their work.” On some of those days Liam doesn’t press the homework. “I’d just let them play and I would play with them because I don’t know what is going on with these kids at home.” He thinks an opportunity to play with a classmate will potentially be much more impactful then dogmatically following the rules. “They were having a lightsaber battle. This is the stuff that they need. That socio-emotional development: spending time with another kid and simply having fun doing kid stuff.”
When asked about hopes for the future, Liam searches for the right words, “I hope that I can . . . well, instill some . . . trust, stability, I mean, there are a couple of tough eggs to crack in my class. Where these kids come from, some adults in their lives are tough to trust, so I don’t think they trust a lot of us. I don’t blame them, but I’d like to make some progress with them. I hope that I can be some sort of positive influence.
“That’s easier said than done. Sometimes I can be a huge goofball and they might think what the heck is this guy doing?” says Liam.
But maybe that’s exactly the thing that helps the kids relate to him. For now, Liam’s willing to keep trying one meatball sub, basketball game, and light saber battle at a time.
Dr. Collier’s experience with Liam and his class has made an impression. He says, “I won’t let anyone ever tell me that ACE isn’t changing lives . . . it certainly is changing these students’ and it absolutely has made Mr. Driscoll a teacher.”
Interested in having your life changed? Visit ace.nd.edu/teach and request more information.