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On Service and Stories

March 18, 2016

Today’s guest blog is written by AmeriCorps NCCC alum, Ryan Tahmaseb (full bio below)

My process of becoming a writer began with my ten months of service. Little did I know when I showed up to serve how the experience of volunteering would redefine my understanding of the world and the stories I could imagine existing within it.  

I was a wide-eyed, directionless twenty-two year old when I arrived in Denver, CO for the AmeriCorps NCCC Training Institute. Fortunately, I found myself surrounded by like-minded peers. Most of us had no idea what to do with our lives and figured we might as well serve while we tried to figure it out.

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Ryan (top left) with AmeriCorps NCCC teammates

This was a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, and there was still a ton of work to be done along the Gulf Coast. AmeriCorps NCCC was committed to sending most of its volunteer teams down there to help in various ways. My team, Water 5, spent its first “spike”—a two-month project with a particular non-profit—with the American Red Cross in Chalmette, LA. Our job was to go door-to-door and complete disaster assessment surveys by interviewing the residents of St. Bernard Parish, all of whom had been through hell. I felt woefully unqualified for this work.

However, most folks were surprisingly candid about what they had lost. Many even volunteered details of their personal experiences during and after Katrina, such as the middle-aged sisters who confided in my teammate and me that they had lost their combined life savings to contractor fraud and then apologized for crying in front of us. Or the disturbed man who outlined his plan to place his entire house on top of the enormous boat resting on his front lawn so he’d be ready when the flood waters returned. These people had stories to tell, and we were glad we could at least provide them with an audience.

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Later that year, my team was sent to Beaumont, TX to supervise and plan activities for children at a few underfunded and understaffed Boys and Girls Clubs. I was drawn to these kids immediately, and for the first time, I became acutely aware of my status as an adult. Here I was, a stranger from who-knows-where, and in countless endearing ways, these six-to-fourteen year-olds were looking to me for attention and approval. I was surprised by the extent to which the things I said and the way I said them exerted influence. So, for example, when we were playing a game and a conflict between the kids arose, I tried to help them consider how their words and actions might make others feel.

Looking back, I’m sure I had the words of literary hero Atticus Finch on my mind: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I was beginning to realizethough I don’t think I would have been able to articulate this at the timethat we each live our own story, and empathy begins when we listen to someone else’s.

This mentorship experience with the Boys and Girls Club was transformative for me. It led to an advocacy position with Big Brothers Big Sisters after AmeriCorps and ultimately set me on the path to my current position as a middle school English teacher at the Meadowbrook School in Weston, MA. Now, I’m lucky enough to spend my days exploring the power of stories with young people whose energy and creativity inspire me to try to inspire them. This is why I started taking my own writing seriously. And I know that my service in AmeriCorps taught me to empathize like no other experience could. Any success I’ve found with writing short fiction—stories in which I am constantly imagining myself as someone else—can be directly attributed to that vital lesson in humanity.

headshotAuthor Bio: Ryan Tahmaseb is a graduate of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and teaches at The Meadowbrook School in Weston, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in Kindred, *82 Review, and Education Week, and his first chapbook, Mutual Incomprehension, was published by Anchor & Plume Press in January 2016. You can find him at ryantahmaseb.com.

 

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