We are “service-learners.” We go out into the world and we make the unfortunate more fortunate. We improve the lives of others. We help them be more like us. Our presence is a service to the needy.
I don’t believe any of that, and I do not believe that there are many students at Loyola who do believe it. However, it is a common mindset that those people who are blessed enough to have the time and resources to spare in devotion to other people are doing a “service” to the objects of their efforts.
Working with the boys at Acts 4 Youth is not a service. If anything, I am humbled and blessed and taught by the rambunctious eighth graders who surpass me in energy and inquiry every time we meet. I am not there to help them because I do not think that is what they need. Boys at that age just want somebody who will listen to their stories. Let me tell you, they have some stories.
The first thing I heard out of one of their mouths was a question posed at the director of Acts 4 Youth: “Do you have a mistress?” He was (of course!) referring to a show he had seen where men have mistresses and then kill their wives. I didn’t laugh (though, I’ll admit that I wanted to) and I didn’t judge. I kind of wanted to ask what the show was called—but he dropped the subject without waiting for an answer. He had gotten a reaction which was all he needed. The second boy I met was doing vocabulary homework so I asked him if he could tell me what an antonym was. He couldn’t believe that a college student didn’t know how to recognize something an eighth grader could do in his sleep. I’m an English major—of course I know what an antonym is, but this boy was sitting sullenly in his seat for a solid ten minutes without talking to me before he felt confident enough to speak. He didn’t need someone he didn’t know coming into his space and telling him how to do his homework, he just needed somebody to make him feel like he was the smartest boy in the room. And once he started talking to me, I had trouble getting him to listen to the teacher, to me, to anybody else. All he wanted was to be heard.
The Maori people neither wanted nor needed an invading culture to come into their land with their money and their machines in an attempt to “improve” the landscape or the lives of the people who had lived there for generations. Roimata, Hemi, and their family held their ground when the “Dollarmen” came and when the machines came and when the flood came, they finally spoke up. But they could not be heard. Even though the flood seemed deliberate and Toko’s death appeared to be linked to their presence and the fire was presumably caused by the Dollarman or his crew, nobody would acknowledge these very real concerns. They were brushed off. The natives who had established their lives on the shore were seen as the parasites rather than the invaders who had turned Roimata, Mary, Toko, Hemi, Manu, James, and Tangi’s lives upside-down.
It is possible that the British believed that they were helping the Maori by making their lives more modern. It’s unlikely, but possible. But they never listened to the Maori to consider what was at risk by violating the land that was so sacred to them and manipulating the water that was a way of life to have the opposite effect. It’s possible that modernization was a “service” that the Dollarmen were offering to the Maori. But is it service if there are strings attached? If their motives were selfish?
Toko catches a big fish and his family shares that fish with their entire family—despite the fact that they were not wealthy and this fish was a rare catch. Toko questions this approach, but Hemi says, “you didn’t eat food until it had been shared, especially if it was from the sea” (53). The earth is kind enough to share with the people; the people are kind enough to share with their people.
When I was working on vocab with my student, the word we were looking for was “bountiful.” All he had to do was fill in the blank. The sentence was along the lines of “a family shares their ___________ food with the less fortunate.” I was asking leading questions and thought I had the perfect lead-in when I said, “You know how people who have a ton of stuff share the extra with other people?” And my student humbled me by giving me the same quizzical look he had worn when I asked what an antonym was. According to him, people don’t just share when they have enough to go around—people share because that’s what people do. We give ourselves to others with no strings attached and no selfish motives.