August 28, 2012

J.P.'s Story

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My name is J.P. Ideker, and I am a junior trying to keep my footing in the undertow of the fastest four years of my life. I remember sitting in these same seats two short years ago at my freshman orientation, and I can say with certainty that all of you will have had a more successful orientation than I did if you avoid both getting hit by a dodgeball in the face ... and forgetting to bring shampoo or toothpaste. (I have extras of both if anyone needs some.)

Coming from a Jesuit high school in Dallas, I knew I wanted to pursue a Jesuit education in college. I applied to mostly Jesuit schools, and thought I had a great understanding of the Jesuit mission. However, when I came to SLU, I soon realized how much more I had to learn and how much more I would grow as a person. Although I've only spent two years at SLU so far, I've already grown in ways I never even thought possible — and tonight I'd like to share a little bit about my experiences in learning and growing with the Jesuit mission.

For me, the key to what sets SLU students' hearts on fire, what ignites their passion and drives their lives lies in the Jesuit mission. The Jesuit mission is all about this beautifully unique idea of educating yourself in and outside the classroom, which creates an experience that encompasses a greater understanding of self and others. Only by knowing others do SLU students truly know themselves, and it's been here at SLU that I've learned what building relationships is all about. Perhaps one of the most profound aspects of the Jesuit mission is the type of relationship that it inspires because it forces us to leave ourselves for the sake of allowing others in. In leaving ourselves, in exposing our vulnerabilities, passions and love, we create something profoundly unique. We create community.

This past year, I was blessed with the opportunity to tutor kids between the ages of 5 and 14 with an organization called the Lewis Place. As part of a revitalization project in the Lewis Neighborhood of St. Louis, the St. Louis Residential Housing Authority set aside a "homework room" for kids from the surrounding school district to be tutored after school let out. Not knowing what to expect, I sat down on the first day, waiting for the K through eighth graders to run into the room. I first met a fourth-grader who immediately sat down next to me and said "I need help with this." Introductions were forsaken for the moment as I read over her math assignment, startled by her boldness. And so began one of the most formative semesters of my life.

As weeks and even months passed, I questioned over and over again at how effective I was as a tutor, because I didn't seem to be making much of a difference. A boy named Josh still refused to do his homework unless there were Reeses in store for him, and Elijah only had half of his times tables memorized. Admittedly I was in a bit of a slump, and I started reluctantly tutoring the kids I had known for almost three months. Words truly cannot describe how difficult it is to convince a stubborn second grader that three plus four is seven instead of five, and that the bump on my neck is called an Adam's apple even though my name is J.P.

After one particularly frustrating tutoring day, I was more discouraged than ever before. And then it hit me. Did I really know these kids? Did I know anything outside of their names and ages? And I couldn't believe that the answer was "no, not really." I began to question how I ever thought I was making a difference in the first place when I didn't even take the time to get to know the students. I have SLU and the Jesuit mission to thank for what happened next.

The very next week, I decided to approach every student I talked to with a genuine sense of curiosity. I asked about their day, found out what they loved to do, talked about what made them special and soon discovered that approaching everyone I met with a genuine sense of awe and joy at who they are as a person — instead of as a fourth-grader needing help with long division — was such a beautifully simple thing to do. And the relationships I was able to build soon meant more to me than I could have ever imagined.

After coming back from Christmas break, I walked into the Lewis Place just as the kids were sitting down at their tables. One of the girls smiled, exclaiming that "the tall clown is back!" And I remember thinking "hey, we've made progress!" because that was the nicest thing she's ever called me. I smiled and laughed, greeting each of the kids by name as I felt the room come to life not with hundreds of math problems, but instead with the incredibly unique talents and interests of everyone in the room. Dorian loved making paper airplanes. Ariana wanted to be a lawyer. Davion wanted to play football and be a doctor. And I wanted so badly to capture the moment when Josh smiled, surprised when I told him how smart he was.

And it no longer became about what I could do to make a difference. It became about how I could see differently. By leaving myself, by going outside the comfort zone of preconceived notions about relationships, by taking the step to approach everyone I met with the same awe and wonder, I helped create something bigger than myself: a true sense of community. And it was the best feeling in the world.

The relationships I've been able to build during my two years at SLU have been meaningful and inspiring. Because these relationships have inspired a truer sense of self and others, I've been able to discover some pretty incredible things. In these relationships, whether they be with a student I'm tutoring or my best friends, I've discovered that what makes SLU such a special place is not what we are, but who we become. As students pursuing the Jesuit mission, we are called to extend ourselves beyond the moment and surface-level relationships. This is a community of individuals who come together to talk about the issues that never get talked about, to inspire change, to dream and to build relationships with purpose.

The Jesuit mission and the SLU community have taught me with hopeful urgency to realize that this world can be such a wonderful place if you believe in something greater. Hopeful because I've come to discover an almost painfully soothing reality by learning to ask the question "What if the first step in changing the world as we know it is to create one more smile than already exists today?" Urgent because that something greater, that something greater that can change the way we view the world starts right now. It starts right now with the realization that building meaningful relationships lends heart and hope to everyone in the community. The Jesuit mission allows SLU students to discover themselves by first losing themselves in the wonder of others.

I'd like to congratulate all of you and say welcome to one of the most special communities you'll ever be a part of. SLU 101 marks the beginning of your career as a Billiken, and while your education here may only last four years, the friends you make, lessons you learn, relationships you build and passions you discover will follow you for the rest of your life, and you will never be the same because of it. Prepare to have something come to life in you that you never thought possible, and prepare to grow as a person, student, and member of a community. New Billikens, welcome home. This is just the beginning.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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