Grappling with Impermanence

BY AMANDA PETERS | March 9. 2017

Words of affirmation from a Pretty Eagle student.

Last Thursday, one of my first graders and I sat in the library enjoying reading Junie B. Jones. This student is high-achieving, so I’ve been pulling her out of phonics for one-on-one reading. She is very shy, but she’s slowing warming up to me. As I finished explaining that Junie B. doesn’t always use the best grammar, she suddenly leaned over and whispered, “Ms. Amanda, are you staying next year?” Before I could answer, she caught herself and said, “Well, you probably wouldn’t work in the second grade, anyway.” She looked devastated.

“Maybe,” I muttered, staring down at Junie B.’s joyful face, my stomach churning. I struggled to look her in the eyes.

I currently serve as an academic aide at Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy on the Crow Reservation in Saint Xavier, Montana. I primarily engage with students in small groups, providing either tutoring or academic enrichment. Much of my time, wonderfully, is spent playing with the children, as well.

A snowy view of Saint Xavier.

“The students become so attached to the JVs,” my supervisor confided during my phone interview last spring. I didn’t realize how true that was. While the children are used to the JVs leaving after one year, they always seem to hold out hope that you’ll be the one to stay. So far, only one JV has served an additional year here in St. X. The isolation of the locale (St. X has a population of about 80), met with the harsh winters and the lack of recreational activities probably have a lot to do with it. It is not easy being out here.

No matter the placement, most JVs deeply engage in their community for a year, and then leave. My service is unsustainable, which I believe is the fatal flaw in year-long service programs. I build relationships with children, they grow attached to me, and then I will leave them. I am perpetuating trends of abandonment that some of them may already be facing in their personal lives. How is that doing good works?

While volunteers eventually move away from the reservation, many members of the community do not have that opportunity. As I am currently discerning my path for next year, I remain grateful for many potential routes. While is it difficult to choose, I at least have options. That is more that most of my students will ever have. The Crow reservation struggles with cycles of alcoholism, meth addiction, poverty, and institutional racism. Many of my students deal with death, abuse, neglect, food insecurity, and economic and educational stagnation. This is these kids’ reality. My reality is to dip my toes in then retreat to my own privileged places.

I sometimes wonder if it would be better in the long run if JVs didn’t come to the reservation. Does our help outweigh the price? However, I am reminded of how short-staffed Pretty Eagle is. While the ideal would be that the school wouldn’t need JVs, and would instead have Crow instructors who would be a constant, right now this is the need. I have to be content in that. And no matter what path I take next year, it will require prioritizing some relationships over others. I’m beginning to realize the cost of putting down roots in multiple places. It is impossible to operate without hurting some people in the process.

The author (far right) with her fellow Jesuit volunteers.

However, I have to take heart in my students. I think of a second grader sprinting across the cafeteria to hug me. I remember the sixth grader who felt comfortable enough to confide in me her social and familial struggles. I laugh with the first grader who told me that stars are made of “deer, egg yolk, metal, and triangles.” I cherish the fifth grader who adopted me into the Crow tribe and the Whistling Water clan. Whenever he speaks of his family, he never fails to count me among his brothers and sisters. I pray that I may have a positive effect with these children. Just because I won’t be around forever doesn’t negate the fact that I am here now. God willing, now will be enough.

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