The Life of a Fellow: Dustin

This summer, 12+ welcomed six new talented individuals to the team through the 2014-2015 Fellows Initiative. These Fellows are commissioned to implement workshops, to provide academic assistance, and to serve our students in the PLUS Centers of our partner schools, Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Penn Treaty School. Here, we document their stories. 

Dustin, a Philly native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, comes to 12 PLUS with a background in education consulting and college advising and a love of ramen and Game of Thrones. Dustin shares his insights about his time at Penn Treaty School. 

We started our 9th grade RAISE workshop with a simple question. “If you were to live the rest of your life wearing a t-shirt with one word on it, what would that word be?” Responses ranged from “ACDC” and “Eagles” to “weird” and “trust,”

But when we asked Atiya, a student who was new to the class, she responded with “Autism.”

The word hung in the air for a second before Andrea, our site director, evenly asked further, “Why autism?”

“Because that’s who I am. Everything about my life is centered around it.”

A short dialog around personal identity vs. labels, of awareness vs. prejudgment followed, but because of limited time, the conversation was left very much open ended. Nevertheless, the room, which had been rowdy a second before her response, became hushed and attentive and transformed into a safe space for students to open up. I felt the atmosphere in the room shift, and the workshop organically evolved into something more than I thought it could be.

Perhaps the greatest misconception that I had was that as an educator, I was the one approaching students. I felt assured that I was the one coming with the answers. I, of course, made sure to be cautious towards having a messiah complex but I still felt somewhat self-important. However, Atiya and other students continuously chip away at that misplaced confidence. They challenge me when I see that as I take one step forward, they are taking a hundred steps to meet me. I see Atiya, Brittany, Michael, and so many of the students break through a layer of fear, of secrets, of battered self-confidence every time they speak up.

When students come for help, for them it’s very much a struggle to approach me. Eye contact made during casual conversations over food and football wanders when discussing their futures. Heads are held down. The loudest of students start to mumble. Still they diligently come back and sit before me. In workshops, students give jokes as answers to our serious questions, questions that make these students far too vulnerable in front of friends. At other times, students respond bravely to lighter inquiries as Atiya did.

Daily, there are also quietly powerful moments at Penn Treaty and in the PLUS Center: the first time that 9th graders have the courage to walk into the PLUS Center, morning greetings and handshakes from the shyest of students, workshop homework filled with real answers, and intimate and consoling discussions about home situations and broken relationships between students and fellows all dropping their guards. The courage and character students show at Penn Treaty gives me goosebumps. Sometimes it leaves me confused. With complexes and hardships that I will never be able to understand, the students constantly encourage and challenge me with their vulnerability.

Although there is little time to meditate upon what has been learned daily, I know that my perspective is becoming clearer and my future a bit hazier. I’m learning so much about the individuals and culture here at 12+ and Penn Treaty but I’m wondering now about how I’ll be at the end of this fellowship. I know I will have an enduring hunger to tackle my own demons as these students do each day, to push myself out of my box and overcome fears, but there is still so much more to process. It’s only been a bit over a month since the fellows started school at Penn Treaty and Kensington Health Sciences, but when we come together to discuss our experiences – some sad, some encouraging, most hilarious and candid – I feel as though there is an unspoken agreement that we will not end this school year unchanged.  Just for now though, I don’t think any of us has figured out in what way exactly.