Wednesday, December 1, 2010

There was a point in time...

Yesterday I went to Woodlawn High School to tutor students as part of the Desert Island Supply Company's (www.desertislandsupplyco.com) local outreach to help inner-city school kids become more effective writers. As with many of the greatest experiences in life, I didn’t know what to expect, nor what would be required of me exactly, I just showed up—and I got a lot more than I bargained for.

I was warned by the organizer (thanks Chip!) that the schedule at Woodlawn was often somewhat fluid. “Don’t be surprised if there’s a fire drill or some last-minute change in schedule,” he said. He didn’t lie. I arrived and found the teacher in charge of the program, and she rounded up four students for me. But then it turned out there was a “Hair Style Show” being held by the cosmetology class, and three of my students disappeared. The lone student (a 17-year-old girl who I’ll call Alyssa) looked at me as if to say
I’m it. So Alyssa and I made our way through the crowded hallway up the wide, 90-year-old staircase to the library upstairs. 
I didn’t have an agenda or lesson plan. I was only told that I’d be helping students draft their college entrance essays or to prepare for a required writing test. Okay. I can do that. Alyssa and I sat on one end of a large table in the empty library and began to chat. I wanted to get to know her before we started writing. She was a little shy, but I once I got her talking, she told me that she was a junior and on the ROTC drill team and she had a six-month old baby in daycare. She also volunteered with a program that helped other young mothers AND she worked weekends at a bakery. She wanted to go to college to become a nurse or a doctor because she “just liked helping people.” I loved this girl.
I gave her a preamble about writing, about how to hone in on details to illuminate a story, show don't tell. Then I asked her to write something for me so I could assess her style and skill. Since she would be applying to college next year, we decided to work on the information she would want to include on her application essay. I asked her to start with the sentence There was a time in my life when I realized...” and to fill in from there details about some important event in her life that informed her desire to help people. She got right to work, and while she was writing, I did the assignment, too. Nothing so unnerving as having someone sit there and watch as you write. I realized that this was a rare time for me to have pen in hand, laying strokes on a piece of paper rather than on a keyboard. It felt good to feel the words flow out that way, and Alyssa got into it to. We sat for 10 minutes or so, quietly writing side by side. When she was finished, I asked if I could read her story aloud.
I don’t feel right publishing her work without her permission, but she did give me her story at the end of my class to keep. What did this 17-year-old single mom/student write about? What was the experience that shaped her desire to continue on to college and get a degree in nursing, or even go on to med school? I'm not sure what I expected her to write, but what she composed blew me away.
In her essay, she wrote about the day she saw a girl, whom she didn’t know, crying on the back steps of her apartment building. She was a little unsure about approaching the girl, but finally plucked up her nerve to ask what was wrong. As it turned out, the girl had a baby too, the same age as Alyssa’s, and the girl had run out of diapers and didn’t have the money to buy more. Alyssa immediately called her mother and asked her to bring over some of her own baby’s things. The girl was grateful, and Alyssa—the teenage mom, age 17—realized (and I’ll quote here) that there were a lot of young mothers who were not as fortunate as I am. After that day, she decided to donate $30 out of every paycheck she receives from her part-time job to a group that provides formula and diapers and supplies to young mothers. 
Do I need to say anything more? No, I think that says it all.

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