Before volunteering at the English Language Club, the only times I had ridden the M50 to Gein was to quickly get to Zuid to transfer to the M52 or to go to the soccer game at Bijlmer Arena. I was excited to unlock more of the Amsterdam map, to feel the train veer right instead of left, heading into unfamiliar parts of the city.
I started volunteering with the English Language Club last fall, attending the after school program for an hour each available Friday evening. I only got a few Fridays under my belt since the fall program got a late start, but I still enjoyed every session. There are two locations, Ala Kondre and Heesterveld, both in Amsterdam ZuidOost. I was mostly at the Heesterveld location, situated right next to the Bullewijk in a housing complex that hosts a number of artist residencies (made evident by the artistic graffiti and murals covering every brick wall).
Hoping to make a good first impression on the twelve and thirteen year olds, I went to the corner store and bought a box of Oreos with four cookies per package for my first day at Heesterveld. The treats were very well-received. I tried bringing a different American snack assortment each time and eventually learned that Oreos, Skittles, and Takis are the most popular among the group.
One of my favorite memories of volunteering last semester was a moment on the first day, when I asked the kids to guess where I was from in the states. One boy immediately shouted, “Texas!” His friend followed with, “Ohio!” These were the only two guesses.
The group at Heesterveld is pretty consistently attended by the same kids. All of them come from a variety of backgrounds, including Morocco, Ghana, and Nigeria. During one of our activities, in which the kids had to mock interview us, I was asked how many languages I spoke. Most if not all of them were surprised to learn that I only spoke one language. We all laughed, I said where I grew up in America, I didn’t need to learn any other language. I asked around the table how many languages each of them spoke, and most responded impressively with three or four. Demetrius, a bright, polite kid with smart-looking glasses, informed me respectfully that he spoke five languages.
The program got off to a slow start last semester, so I only attended the after school sessions a handful of times. Still, the kids were bummed to hear that I was leaving in December, and so it was a heartwarming and exciting goodbye when I told them I would be back in the spring.
Spring brought sunnier weather and more energetic students. Fortunately, the multicolored apartments overlook a well-lit courtyard perfect for impromptu soccer matches. After an activity, such as Shark Tank when the kids designed and pitched their own small businesses, or during Black History Month when the kids discuss prominent black historical figures, all of the students are dying to go outside and play football. The second the activity ends and Amy releases the students for outside time, one of the students, Raymond, is immediately out of his seat and racing down the stairs, soccer ball in hand, followed by the horde of students hurriedly putting on their jackets, and trailed by myself and the other amused volunteers.
The soccer matches are ruthless. When teams are divided up, it tends to come out with one clearly more athletic team, usually all the boys who live and breathe football, typically led by Raymond, and the students who really just want a fun, friendly match. One of my fellow volunteers, also very athletic, tries to skew the odds by joining the team opposing Raymond. The courtyard erupts with the sound of the ball slamming against the walls (the goals), excited yelling, and the racket of tennis shoes racing back and forth. As I am not athletically inclined, I tend to hover on the edges with a few of the girls, Michele, Rachel and Raquel. They play with their phones and show me Tik Tok dances. One afternoon, Michelle, one of the volunteers who joined this spring, brought pop rock candy for the kids to try. Their teacher was fascinated and howled with laughter when her students opened their mouths to show their red or blue fizzling tongues.
This spring I applied to a teaching fellowship in my hometown for the summer. The fellowship application required a mock teaching video to demonstrate my teaching abilities. As I was told by the coordinator, most applicants usually plan a brief lesson and teach it to their friends pretending to be students. I figured, one, that I didn’t entirely trust my friends to cooperate, but two, I was volunteering with students the same age as those I will be teaching (I got the fellowship) in Sacramento. I pitched my idea to Amy and made sure it was doable, since I did have to record myself and the students, and she said," Go for it."
I ended up creating a poetry lesson, drawing on past poetry lessons from elementary and middle school, supplemented with a bit of my own research (I ended up down a rabbit hole of Just for Teachers! websites). I printed out examples of poems and haikus and drafted a list of poetry activities I could walk them through, such as haiku writing, making a list of their favorite words and writing a poem from it, or simply writing from their heart, inspired by the examples I brought in.
In moments where I just let them write, the room was nearly silent aside from the sound of pencil on paper. Some wrote poems in Dutch and English, occasionally raising their hand to ask me or Amy to translate a word. When the lesson came to an end, I asked around the room if anyone wanted to share. One of the students, a sweet boy named Ezekiel, shyly raised his hand and read his poem about helping his teacher during class. Michele prefaced hers by saying it was “emo," but went on to read a beautiful poem about roses and being thankful for life. Reuben, soft-spoken, brilliant and outgoing, blew me away with a hilarious poem in Dutch that was both blunt and clever. I was nervous coming into it, but by the end, I was not only impressed by their effort and products, but also deeply appreciative of their commitment.
My last day was Friday one week before I flew back to America, and to celebrate myself and the other IES Abroad volunteers who were leaving, Amy planned a picnic in the park. We all gathered at Heesterveld that sunny, spectacularly windy afternoon, and hiked in one long caravan to the nearby Nelson Mandelapark. Ryan walked his bicycle, weighed down in the front by the giant plastic bag carrying his mom’s home-cooking. The girls, Michele, Rachel, and Raquel, shuffled along at the center of the group, laughing and teasing the boys. Amy’s son zipped up and down the pathway on his racing bike, reporting back to Amy that the designated picnic spot was empty and ours for the taking. Reuben eventually commandeered Ryan’s bike and rode it all the way to the park.
The group parked it on a slope with a long cement bench on which we could lay out all the food: Ryan’s mom’s Moroccan samosas, shrimp chips, and baklava, Michele’s jumbo bags of popcorn and paprika Lays, Rachel’s bucket of KFC, Amy’s son’s homemade fried rice, and Dmitrius’ English cookies and muffins. I added my green grapes, Oreos, and Hot Cheetos, the latter bag snatched in an instant, passed between them until all their fingers were red and cheesy. A ball game ensued, horde of shouting kids racing back and forth on the grass, trying to catch the ball from their teammates as many times as possible before someone from the other team intercepted and the count restarted. Their teacher eventually brought out watermelon and blue and pink popsicles. The sweaty lot of students hunkered down on the rock pile at the top, faking pushing each other off, bright blue popsicle dripping down their hands. We took a group pic amongst the rocks, me and the other volunteers sitting properly at the base, while a ring of rambunctious students constantly messing with each other stood around us, half smiling, half shouting at one another. Picture over with, the boys flooded down the hill again and started playing soccer, while the girls shared the giant bag of popcorn in the shade.
It was a lovely last day. By 6 p.m., festivities dwindled down, though the sun was still high in the sky, plenty of day left. The kids, most of whom had their bikes, planned on meeting other friends at the adjacent park. I gathered my things, tidied the picnic spot, and said my goodbyes. The girls, Rachel, Raquel, and Michele gave me huge hugs, saying they hoped they would see me again. We love you! they exclaimed, to which my heart simply burst. The boys, still kicking around the ball, waved goodbye and I wished them all a good year at school. Just as I was ready to walk back to the station, Reuben ran up to me, a random stick he’d found in hand, and tackled me with a hug, thanked me for everything, then jogged off to join the rest of the group to enjoy the rest of the beautiful spring day.
One of the best parts of volunteering with the students is getting to travel back in time. That is, I stand on the cement planter boxes, watching them sprint after the bright orange football, and recall how freeing it was to be that age, only caring about the outcome of the impromptu football game. From interacting with the kids, I know they have a multitude of their own concerns, and I know I had my own concerns at their age too, however trivial they might be considered now. But I love seeing how independent they are, how much they enjoy showing up for the program to see their friends and learn from me and the other volunteers. I will miss seeing them every Friday afternoon, and never forget my wonderful experience at Heesterveld.
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My name is Emma Basco and I am originally from Sacramento, California. I am currently studying literature and writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I love to read on the beach, doodle on post it notes, paint with watercolors, and unearth new cafes and restaurants. My hidden talent is that I can make an excellent pot of noodles from packaged ramen.