For the past ten days the nation has gotten a chance to see real life heroism at work. The first responders who rushed into uncertainly to reach the injured after bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon showed us all the principles of bravery and steadfastness in the face of uncertainty.

But the last several days have also reminded me of the everyday heroes in our midst—the caretakers of our nation’s youth—who work in

A CityYear employee works with a student in Sacramento (Elliot Haney/City Year)

our public schools to protect and educate. While it is easy to be in awe of those who risk their lives of real danger, I was reminded of the heroes I met while attending D.C.’s public schools- and who in their own way, saved my life.

 I work at Browne Education Campus as a full-time volunteer for City Year, a nonprofit organization whose teams of diverse young adults commit to a year of full-time service keeping students in school and on track to graduate. Eight years ago, I was sitting where the eighth-grade students I work with now sit. I was a practical joker, uncertain of my abilities, naïve and unaware that my choices could affect my future. The next year, when I graduated to Woodson Senior High School, I was more interested in sports—I was on the track team—and in girls than I was in my education. When I thought about my future, I thought about making money, but I was unsure of how I was going to do it. Black males get a bad reputation in America as mean, rugged or not smart. I grew up hearing these stereotypes and I saw them become reality for the black males in my life time and time again. Many of my peers sold drugs. At that time, the reason I decided not to was because my grandmother helped me believe there was more out there for me, that I could be a doctor, an athlete, or the president if I wanted to.

 Woodson High School is where I met Mr. Smith, one of the high school deans. He worked mostly with the boys, and was one of the black male role models I had during that time. Two distinct memories involving Mr. Smith come to mind from high school.

The first was the time Mr. Smith pushed me to apply for the National Honor’s society. For starters, I knew I would have to write an essay, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. I also knew that if I got into the Honor’s Society there was going to be a ceremony. I didn’t want to go to a ceremony!

The second episode that sticks out in my mind was when Mr. Smith pushed me to apply for a college scholarship. I didn’t want to do that either, and I told him so. He said to me, “You’re going to do it.” He threatened to kick me off the track team. He warned that he would call my mom. It was the kind of tough love I needed. I got into the Honor’s Society, which helped me stand out as I applied for colleges. I won the scholarship, worth $50,000, and I went to college.  My education opened my eyes, and I knew I wanted to become involved in education, to help create a better reality for kids who are growing up not knowing all their options.

As I’ve watched teachers and corps members prepare students for the DC CAS, the District’s yearly assessment which is being administered this week, I have also seen them perform heroic acts. They have met our students’ curiosity about this week’s events with answers, responded to their fears with concern and reminded them that they have the amazing power of choice. That power of choice can change the world. I see teachers picking up students from their homes and bringing them to school. I see teachers buying students’ breakfast and lunch to make sure they have enough to eat. Teachers and corps member are making a difference every day in the lives of the students they work with. Not only are they supporting students academically, but also emotionally and behaviorally. They are doing anything it takes to raise a generation that will make our nation and world a safer and healthier place to live and thrive.

City Year’s mantra is “Give a year, change the world.” My year of service is almost over. I don’t know if I’ve changed the world, but I know I have changed my community. That is where it starts. Students come up to me in the hallways all the time. They want to learn from me. I see so much of myself in them, and I see myself playing the role in their lives that Mr. Smith played in mine.  We have the power to change the young lives we encounter for the better, and we have a responsibility to use that power. Each of us has the potential to change the world, and we begin in our own communities.