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Never have I felt more like an adult than when standing on the other side of the lunch line. For the first nine years of my school career, I’d been one of the kids filing down the row, joining in frenzies over stacks of Doritos or cookies laid out on cafeteria tables while sad, syrupy fruit cups remained untouched; last week, during the three days of pre-job training for the Youthwork Internship Program, I got the chance to feel the rush of power the comes with controlling the boxes of chips.

Indeed, laying out lukewarm grilled cheeses on the same white Styrofoam trays with pre-cut squares helpfully labelled “Milk” and four other odd, trapezoidal indentations meant to hold food provided a pleasant rush of grade-school nostalgia, but beyond that, my experience as a facilitator at orientation showed the daily stresses of those who work with youth. In my application to DukeEngage Durham, I spoke on the role that good teachers played in my own education and on the negative impacts of overstretched, under-supported staff on students individually and on the system as a whole. Seeing the scrambling involved in organizing a thousand moving pieces – presenters dropping out, room assignments shifting, students getting lost – as the program progressed underscored the patience and flexibility of the Durham Public Schools and City of Durham staff that held it together. One teacher, for instance, managed to come up with an hour-long session on professionalism that kept kids interested and engaged after finding out five minutes prior that the scheduled speaker wouldn’t be able to make it.

From the outside, it’s easy to see operations like school systems or summer programs as part of the inefficient, lumbering monolith that government is often made out to be. Personally, administration of these programs always came across as mechanical – input the necessary forms on one end, wait a few days (or weeks, depending on congestion), and get a result on the other. Working with this internship program has exposed me to the frantic internals of the machine that I’d always taken for granted.

Of course, seeing the day-to-day operations of the youth program revealed a host of problems that I hadn’t considered when I was a participant in similar programs or even when applying to DukeEngage. As a student, for instance, lunch remains confined to a pre-determined half-hour window that ends with the tossing of a tray into a trash bag. What happens to the untouched leftovers that remain on the table never concerned me until last week, when, along with the other OEWD interns, I found myself loading bags upon bags of food to be thrown away – not refrigerated for the next day or donated to any number of local food banks or charities, but simply tossed in the garbage. The DPS teachers we worked with were equally upset at the absurd amount of waste, but explained to us that school system policy was to toss the food because donating it presents liability issues. This issue feels particularly troubling because of its systemic nature; this sort of waste happens regularly because of a deeply flawed policy. As DukeEngage participants and residents of Durham, easing problems like this one is an obligation that we have continued to consider since returning to the office from orientation, although it remains difficult to envision solutions short of the system-wide policy change that will undoubtedly be necessary but remains slow in appearing.

This past week reaffirmed the already appreciative view that I held of all the teachers that I had as a child and revealed a wholly new set of challenges that they and the school system battle regularly. It also changed my view of how certain aspects of government operate – often positively, but occasionally for the worse.