On Saying ‘Yes’

May 14, 2013 at 9:45 pm 6 comments

I know it’s been awhile since I posted anything here. I think I haven’t had anything worthwhile to say. But today feels different.

My daughter teaches at a high school in Chicago. It’s a tough crowd. Between entering the door at the beginning of the school year grade levels behind their peers, gangs, guns, homelessness, poverty, varying levels of family support, discipline issues, and any number of physical and mental health issues, she has to hold on tight to the bright moments. Every day she brainstorms with colleagues about how to make tomorrow better than today. She considers what she can do again, what she can never do again, what she can tweak or add or research or amend to make a difference tomorrow.

So when she asked me if I’d chaperon a field trip with her — a trip to a local college with her junior class — because their goal this year has been to focus on being a first generation college student, to focus on what comes next and achieving more and being more and not settling for only what they can see in their lens right now, I said yes.
Leading up to the college visit she had her students write practice personal statements. One boy was excited that his teacher’s mother was going on the field trip and asked if he could send his statement to Ms. Black’s Ms. Black. And that’s how I learned F’s story:
When his mother’s mom passed away the family was put out of the house they’d shared with her. His aunts and uncles all said the same thing, ‘no room in this house for you’ — not even a space on the floor to sleep. F explained that when they showed up at his other grandmother’s house, she told them their father was a survivor and they should be survivors too. “Then she closed the door and locked it.”
So that’s how F came to live in shelters, waking every day at 6 AM to catch the bus to get to school. That’s how he came to hear, over and over again when visiting relatives, that he was a bum, that he was just like his dad, that he would never amount to anything, that he’d grow up to be a “nothing”.
But there’s something special about F that his essay revealed: he refused to believe what people said about him. Instead he looked for jobs, doing anything he could just to help the family a little bit. And when he got his first real job he used some of the money from his first paycheck to give his baby sister her first real birthday party.
Seeing his sister happy “for once” made F happy and it motivated him to work hard and strive to do it again — “to provide from time to time.” And he knows he needs an education beyond high school to make that happen.
And hearing his relatives trash talk him and his siblings motivates F to prove them wrong. He refuses to believe it to be true. Instead he wants to go to college. He already knows he wants to be an engineer.

Of course after reading F’s personal statement I wrote him back. I told him what a fine writer he was, and how much I already admired him without even having met him yet, and that I was really looking forward to meeting him at the college visit. Because I was.
When the bus arrived at that local college on Monday I was waiting to greet the class. There were hand shakes and introductions and smiles and lots of anticipation for the day. I knew F the moment he stepped off of the bus. He was the one with his arms stretched out wider than his smile — he wanted to hug Ms. Black’s Ms. Black. Sharing his story, knowing his story was heard, and receiving my simple email response all let F know he mattered beyond his neighborhood. Because he did.

It was a happy day. The kids were excited to talk with representatives about the college and intramural sports and studying and how to apply and dorm life. They were ecstatic to eat in the cafeteria — it might have been the highlight of the tour with the ‘all you can eat’ policy. And they asked real questions of the student guide who showed them around campus. They posed for group photos on the football field and wanted to stand next to the college sign for the last picture before boarding the bus back to their Chicago neighborhood. It was becoming a real possibility and they knew it was within their reach now.

A few thank you emails arrived today, but the ones that mean the most included  “thank you for understanding our goal” and “You look at people for what they can achieve and not what they fail at.”

And I was glad I said yes.

Let me say right here and now that I know having a great teacher, my daughter, in their lives – a teacher who believes that they can accomplish this goal to go to college if they work hard and study harder and stay focused — a teacher who is constantly motivating and prodding and pushing and challenging and affirming and waiting and leading and following (and reevaluating at the end of Every Day) — makes a difference to F and his class today … and all of their tomorrows — and NO test will ever measure that.

But let me confess this — my dark moment on that happy college visit day: As I looked at all of their faces — eagerly soaking up the words of the college rep (or struggling to stay awake), laughing in the lunch line as they overfilled their plates, exclaiming over the beautiful dorms and houses surrounding campus — I wondered how many would live to see the dream come true. It was an unwelcome thought on a bright blue-sky day and I pushed it away as fast as it came. But it won’t stay away. Because I live in Chicago. I know that these kids in this tough school in this toughest neighborhood in the city are in danger of not making it out alive. Violence is all around them and its force is powerful. They run the risk daily of being targeted or caught up in it.
And they aren’t the pretty kids that the news media latches onto when another young person is killed by a gun. They’re the kids you hardly hear about because of their address or their parents’ income or their test scores or the color of their skin. And so nothing happens and nothing changes and the dream eventually dies.

But  here’s what I know for sure and this thought is stronger than the dark moment:  Those kids do matter. All of our kids deserve to have their stories told … and heard. All of our kids deserve to dream and live to see the dream realized.
It’s not an easy problem to solve. I won’t pretend it is. But for now, I’ll start by saying  yes.

Entry filed under: Just Do It -- Stories from the Field, Teaching Artist. Tags: , , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. janet4753  |  May 14, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Fantastic posting. And yet so true that for some people all it takes is someone else to “listen” exquisitly, and for them to be acknowledged. They will all face challenges, and none of us know when the quiet word of affirmation and encouragement will make a difference. All we can do is sow seeds and support.

    Janet Dowling Storyteller, Writer & Creative Reflective Supervisor

    07834 194215 http://Www.JanetTellsStories.co.uk

  • 2. Carol Connolly  |  May 15, 2013 at 4:22 am

    What a beautiful post. Those kids are lucky to have a teacher like your daughter. Here’s to saying “Yes!”

  • 3. jacquie sewell  |  May 15, 2013 at 7:31 am

    Thanking God for Diana and you and all the other wonderful teachers who are investing their lives and love into the lives and hearts of children. Thanks for sharing!

  • 4. Yvonne Healy  |  May 17, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Mmmm. Art is the cracked mirror which looks at the ugly and reflects beauty. Well said and important.

  • 5. JR  |  May 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Wonderful post. It sounds like F really believes in himself. Good.

  • 6. Shannon Abercrombie  |  May 27, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    What a heartbreaking, beautiful post. I’m so hopeful for F. I hope he can find his way and I hope you’ll keep emailing him. I imagine even small bits of encouragement means the world to a boy who has lost so much and who has such high hopes in the future. I’d love to hear when he gets accepted to college!


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