"Success is not necessarily the perfect essay or even a job well done. Sometimes it’s just showing up on Wednesdays."
“School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays…” That flaky statement sounds nothing like a measure of success, yet oddly for me it signifies a touching consummation and a surprising triumph of this past school year.
Summer vacation doesn’t mean much any more to an empty nester like me, but last August as my football coach was ramping up for another season and the summer days were waning, I found myself contemplating what I should do when school starts. It’s compulsive. Years of being one of those semi-annoying moms always flitting around their kids’ schools – planning carnivals, PTA-ing, room mothering, raising Ed Funds, and attending every school event – is so engrained in my psyche that I feel a wistful void when the first day of school rolls around. One balmy morning last summer with September lurking behind the fence, I was trying to enjoy my coffee-newspaper-beach-read routine in the backyard as sunlight filtered through the ivy leaves dangling lazily on the trellis overhead. Unadulterated relaxation – nothing to do, not a care in the world. Yet discontent and restlessness hung about, sure as the ivy leaves that would be dead and falling around me in a month or two. It seems I can only appreciate that free-as-a-bird feeling when I’ve accomplished something or have a worthwhile focus, and I instead was feeling adrift, pointless, unsettled – anything but relaxed. Listlessly scanning the newspaper, one headline suddenly buzzed my trigger words: Writing Coach Project Seeks More Volunteers.
Turns out, the nonprofit Community Alliance for Learning was planning to expand their WriterCoach Connection, a program that brings volunteers into the schools to work with students on improving their comprehension, writing, and critical thinking skills. The program began in Berkeley in 2001 and later expanded to Oakland, Albany, and West Contra Costa schools. Richmond High School welcomed WriterCoach Connection in the fall of 2012 and was hoping to expand the program for its second year with more volunteer coaches. Hmmm… writing, education and working with at-risk youths was an enticing combination, and my online inquiry was met with an immediate enthusiastic response. You don’t need to be a writer or a teacher to work with this program – in fact, most of the volunteers simply enjoy interacting with kids. After extensive training, a classroom full of new volunteers was scheduled to work one-on-one with the ELD (English Language Development) students at Richmond High, ready or not. We were all a little nervous, wondering if we were capable of teaching, connecting, and building trust with these “hardened” teens. Wondering if safety at this “tough” school was going to be a concern. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but here’s what I found: kids are kids, no matter where they live. No matter how they act, deep down there is a child who wants their life to count.
Every other Wednesday throughout the school year I trekked to a portable at Richmond High and worked one-on-one first with “Maria” and then “Sofia” or vice versa. I loved walking through the school grounds and hallways to the ELD classroom to pick up the students, partly to catch a glimpse of school life and partly to stroll ‘n chat with each girl on the way back to the portable. This was the trust-building time when we talked about anything but academics. The time when Maria told me how she and her mom spent the whole night looking for her cousin. How they finally found him in jail at 4:00 am. The time when Sofia told me that she broke up with her boyfriend because he was getting messed up in a gang. That she was suspended from school when this ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend beat the crap out of her (she fought back). How Maria’s family lost their house a few years ago. That Sofia’s father left the family and moved back to Mexico. How Maria always feels so tired and doesn’t have anywhere to study. That Sofia is so sick of taking care of her sister’s little kids that live with them. So many obstacles on the road to their dreams that they told me about as we worked on an essay about goals: Maria wants to be a psychologist to help people feel better, and Sofia wants to be a police officer to make things right in her town.
It was an interesting journey trying to balance my expectations with my students’ realities. I found that their smallest accomplishments became my greatest wins as a writing coach. The measures of success varied from week to week. Sometimes just jotting down the ideas from our brainstorming session was all we could manage. Other weeks, a completed outline, mind-map or hamburger organizer was a feat in itself. One of my favorite triumphs came as a complete surprise on the day we worked on a letter, essay or poem for someone special. Sofia wanted to write a poem for her mother but was convinced that she couldn’t do it. Instead, she started scribbling some of the things that she loves about her mamacita with the intent to turn those scribbles into an essay. It was magical to watch that series of sentences unfold and evolve into – ta da! – a lovely poem. Sofia’s surprised delight was my reward of the semester.
Once I realized that my girls would probably not be writing stellar essays – especially in a language that wasn’t spoken in their home – I modified my expectations for what we could accomplish in one class period. Both of my students were almost paralyzed, fearful or maybe just shy about putting pen to paper. But as I shared my own writing frustrations with them, their self-reliance grew. If I said it once, I said it one hundred times this year: “The hardest part is just getting started – for all of us!” It was heartwarming to watch their writing confidence grow, and as the school year progressed they were able to jump straight into their assignments with less and less prompting from me.
My proudest achievement of the school year came on the last day of coaching when Maria said, “School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays so I can work with you.” If that’s what it takes to keep a kid in school, then by golly I’ll back for more coaching next September. Tears welled up when each of my girls asked if we could exchange phone numbers for the summer – tears of joy that they wanted to keep in touch and of sorrow that the program doesn’t allow that to happen. It was difficult to let go of my students and trust that they would somehow find ways to make their dreams come true. The best I could do was leave them with a card, so I made one for each – cute scrapbooky cards packed with inspirational quotes, words of encouragement and as many well wishes as one card can hold.
How do we measure success? Most certainly I gained more from coaching writing than my students did. When we begin new ventures, lofty expectations are invariably entailed. As the ventures take off, those grandiose dreams often crash into realities… and unless we ratchet down a few notches with the actual realm of possibilities, we are left soaring aimlessly above the clouds – alone and disillusioned. Championing causes of social justice, we imagine that we can change the world. Working with at-risk students, we hope to better lives and inspire academic achievements. So how do we measure success when the project is finished or the school year ends without these miraculous accomplishments – without feeling like a disenchanted failure? We adjust our expectations and find cause for celebracíon in the little things, that’s what we do. Success is not necessarily the perfect essay or even a job well done. Sometimes it’s just showing up on Wednesdays.
“If you help one community, one village, or one child, the effects can last for weeks, years, or even a lifetime, like a ripple on a still ocean that extends into the horizon. That’s how you change the world.”
- Jim Ziolkowski (author of “Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?”)