Monday, April 16, 2012

Whatever It Takes.

(artwork via briana mccarthy)

For Mrs. Rodriguez, Mr. Bowman, Mr. Abel, Sensei Lou Scotti & Ms. Visconti

Before the three little cousins—I cherish like siblings—were born.
Before I immersed myself into the world of literary educational reform.
Before the boys I graduated high school with said goodbye from the mouths of bullet wounds.

Something crawled underneath my skin.

In fact, it was someone.

Lisa—my best friend—and I were separated in the fifth grade after her mother tried to keep the fa├žade that they still lived in our neighborhood. One evening, an investigator followed them on their daily walk home and discovered that they no longer lived in their pre-unemployment comfy suburban home. They weren’t too far though. They’d moved a town over into a low-income building and were approximately five blocks from their old home. What was the difference between the locations? One area was zoned for a school district on a steady academic incline. The other area, despite several restructurings, digressed rapidly. Thus, upon discovery, the district—her mother so desperately wanted her to attend—asked her to leave.

This did not ruin our friendship. In fact, throughout middle school, we continued to practice our saxophones, write in our journals and play doorbell ditch in their new apartment building. My mother trusted her mom and it was one of the only places I was allowed to escape to without having to ask permission.

In the eighth grade something changed. One day I’d brought my sax over to practice with her, only to discover Lisa quit marching band. A few weeks later, she began to mock my incessant journal entries and threw hers away. We were both pre-teens, suffering through the rampage of hormones. I had amazing teachers, who were ready and willing to dispel any lack of motivation they’d noticed. I had mentors who noticed negative influences right away and grasped my attention before I could lose focus. Lisa had no mentors, extra after-school initiatives and her teachers didn’t care. In fact, when she told her band teacher that she wanted to quit because she was tired of being ridiculed by the people in her projects for lugging the heavy instrument, his words were, “One less kid.”

Soon, I’d start to ring her doorbell to find out she wasn’t ever home. I would wait on her balcony for as long as her mother would let me and then I’d trudge home knowing my best friend was slipping through my fingers.

One day she called, apologized for her absence and invited me to hang out. I scrambled my things and practically ran down to the bodega where she wanted to meet. There she stood, an arresting height, shoulder length hair and eyes like a pharaoh. She smiled once she saw me and we embraced. I missed her. She was the only person in the world that held my secrets, a sister sans the blood. Our reunion was suddenly halted by a male voice.

“That’s your friend right there ma? Put me on son.”

I looked around and realized five guys that were much older surrounded us. They had to be seniors in high school or of college age. They ranged in complexion and attire, some good looking and some eye-of-the-beholder. One similarity stood out amongst them: A black and white bandana seemed to protrude from each of their right back pockets. I looked at the back of my best friend’s jeans; one dangled from her pocket too.

It was as if someone pushed a fast-forward button on our innocence. Suddenly she entangled with the streets, slinging and kicking it before she was old enough. I saw her every now and then: Locking fingers with another thug, smoking blunts on her apartment’s steps and eventually strung out at a corner store. I was suddenly alarmingly aware that we’d grown eons apart.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much this friendship’s downfall altered my course. After we’d stopped speaking I joined a karate dojo that offered an afterschool program. After our routine, we’d work on our homework and receive tutoring. Soon my Sensei would realize that I was far ahead of grade level in reading and writing. He asked me to work with younger students and help him create supplemental curriculum for some of the other kids. At 14, I’d become a tutor at the program and I fell in love with instructing. In particular, the younger girls of the program—often angry and led astray—seemed to cling to me.

When they were angry, I told them to write it.
When they were sad, I told them to tell the notebook their secrets.
When they longed for something, I made them write the goals that would lead them to it.

This was my way of coping. I wanted them all to adapt it, as selfish as it may seem.

I spent my allowances on journals, handing them to my favorite students. We learned haikus and acrostics, had discussions about the things they were going through at home and taught one another patience. My goals became:

Every girl/boy goes home with a smile.
No girl/boy goes without a journal and a pen.

When my parents noticed my knack for facilitating youth, they helped me create a mentoring program with a few of their friends’ younger daughters and a cousin. I called it “Enlighten.” I was fifteen, taking 9-10 year olds on ice skating trips, watching Miss Congeniality, visiting museums and learning the basics.


Every job I’ve had since those beginnings have been along those lines. I’ve been a group leader at summer camp, a writing teacher for library poetry workshops, a lead tutor, a professor for a college summer intensive, and finally a writing instructor that creates curriculum for an entire grade. I receive emails every month from girls that tell me I’ve influenced/changed their path; a beautiful and humbling notion. Still, I am unsatisfied. I have so much more work to do.

Although I am fascinated with the art of scribing and publishing, I will always have the itch to teach. That something that crawled under my skin has taken on my entire being. At thirteen, I saw a potential Lisa in every young girl or boy that I’ve ever met. Our experience showed me how the slightest alteration of advantage could revolutionize the world of a child. Lisa and I were descendants of the same culture, had great parents and had all the same interests. However, because of an environmental change, today she faces some of the most difficult hardships no woman should have to endure.

This week I finished Paul Tough’s “Whatever It Takes” on Harlem Children’s Zone’s plan to positively contaminate a suffering 100-block radius in NYC. The book stands on the philosophy of early intervention into a child’s life and advocates an equality of educational environment across the board. A riveting read, it inspired me to write this post.

Excerpt from the book:

"To change the trajectory of a poor child in an inner-city neighborhood, this research shows, you need to: intervene early in the child’s life, continue to intervene throughout adolescence, give him extra time in school and extra support outside of school; involve his parents if possible but be prepared to compensate for their absence; focus on improving his cognitive skills but also nurture his non-cognitive, social and emotional skills." -Paul Tough

My philosophy is this: We are all connected. Just as I am one of the oldest cousins in my family, a role model to almost fifteen young adults, so are you. You are the relative/inspiration to so many children around you. You have the power/possibility to intervene right now. We were all diverging paths at one part of our lives. Someone pushed us in the right direction, their motivations our maps.

What are you waiting on? Navigate.


Cassandra Emme said...

Loved it. So inspirational.

Victory's Mine. said...

Just finished reading and printing out the steps to moving to the city!!! Easy Read! Thanks..Youre doing great!!! Im starting a blog soon too...

Erika D. Coldman said...

I wish there were more teachers today who share just an ounce of the passion you have for students.

I have never had the desire to teach but ironically enough, a few of my previous jobs placed me in that role in one way or the other.

Working with inner city teens was tough for me, especially since I was so close to their age. It was hard for me to assume an authoritative role with them.

In the short 7 months that I was with them, I did my best to expose them to things & ideas they weren't used to. It hurt my heart to know that almost all of them had never been outside of the city of Chicago (I learned that on an overnight camping trip to Michigan--another first). It was touching to be able to share that experience with them.

In the past, my lack of patience had me swearing off children for eternity but after reading this post & the minimal experience I do have with them, a change of heart may be happening. I like the idea of being responsible in helping some child find their way.

As always, enjoyed the read and if I ever do decide to be fruitful & multiply, I am thankful that there will be teachers like you who care.

Unknown said...

a lot of the time i read through your work and i feel like you're the version of who i could've been had i had the support i needed from my parents, teachers and so on. you inspire me so much and i'm really proud of the person you are but not in an assuming, creepy sort of way LOl you know what i mean, i hope. :)

Christina said...

With every entry, I am amazed by your talent, passion, compassion, and honesty. I think "Whatever it takes" is a phrase that applies to your whole approach on life (well from what you show us). I wish half the writers, teachers, just people in general that I know, knew the true meaning of whatever it takes like you do.

Elias Kassatly said...

Word up. Nice work, comrade (the writing and the teaching).

Little Miss Knobody said...

The "Whatever It Takes" approach is a great one! It seems like you give selflessly, inspire, and motivate your students. They will remember you for that. Great Post!