At School in the World

By Benjamin Nicholas

ben-nicholasI arrive at Mercy College at 8:30 AM ready to destroy a classroom. When I enter the room, Donkey Kong tosses me aside like a rag doll. I push back, but he doesn’t move. After all, his nickname stems from his huge and muscular stature.
As the youngest worker by more than 9 years at this construction site, I endure a lot of friendly torment. Even Shorty, who stands tall in his 5’1” frame, sometimes knocks me around. Once our team of five is in the classroom, I grab my dust mask. Fooling around ceases. Hernan issues strict directions: “De ceiling es… basura. Break walls, take out de metal. Boom boom boom,” he says, pointing around the room.
We dismantle everything: lighting, ceiling and floor tiles, leaving hundreds of pounds of debris and dust. We haul all the garbage to the dump and then destroy another two classrooms before the work day ends at 3:00 PM. Or for me, Job One ends.
I rush home, jump in the shower and rinse off the dust that covers my entire body – minus what was protected by the dust mask. Then I comb my hair and throw on my khaki shorts and polo shirt, branded with the logo of Elite Pool and Fitness. By 4:00 PM, I arrive at my second job as a groundskeeper at the Bay Terrace Country Club.
I enter the front gate and face normal chaos. Late afternoon is the busiest time. The morning’s Early Bird members still occupy chairs, but after-work families want places to lounge. I immediately fetch chairs from storage.
Groundskeeping is a cakewalk compared to the physical demands of GA Industries. After setting up a family by the kiddie pool, I hear an order: “Hey, can we have 3 lounge chairs near the shallow end?” Before I respond, both parents are off in pursuit of their son, who runs amok with a water gun spraying everything in sight.
I dare not cross the intuitive boundary and help the parents. I chuckle to myself while sympathizing with them, considering my experience handling rebellious kids. Along with two summer jobs, I volunteer as a basketball coach for my local parish. My team of 11 hyperactive fifth graders are lovable but sometimes unpredictable, which teaches me to maintain control while handling the rowdiest kid.
Bill is by far the most defiant. He will try anything to entertain himself and hates to answer to anyone. Constantly bragging and taunting others, he wants everyone to know he is the best player on the team. As I instruct my players to run a three-man weave, I hear a voice that is not my own carrying on from the corner. I know it is Bill laughing about unrelated nonsense. I immediately stop him with “the look” and order him to run laps. Although he runs the laps, I realize neither of us learn anything. He will still fool around, and I will continue to instruct him to run—until I discover a better way to handle him. After some trial and error, I realize that a “one size fits all”coaching style does not work. Each child needs a different type of structured teaching, but the common goal in all the lessons is developing mutual respect and creating a non-hostile environment. Instead of blowing my whistle and screaming, I develop a more friendly relationship with each individual player. The more I become a big brother figure, the more players respect me. Even Bill becomes willing to exert 110%.
Through the diversity of my work and volunteer experiences, I have learned to communicate with a range of people and realize that education is not restricted to the school day. I actually bring my work and volunteer experiences to school where I do not demolish classrooms. Instead, I tear down mental walls that prevent learning from diverse experiences.

Benjamin Nicholas, a graduate of St. Francis Preparatory School, is a freshman at Syracuse University.