So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle. That’s not really the reason. The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.
In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students. While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons. I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall. We are sharpening skills to ease the transition. I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension. He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs. These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.
For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’. This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery . In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes. They don’t all take English. In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”. I mean, they had over forty options — including architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s! So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing. Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.
Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse. I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.
Our task? Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay. One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc. Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App. Easy? Nope. Possible? Absolutely.
Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class. Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions. Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers. They are planning on attending selective universities. They have high expectations of themselves. I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them. I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.
I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers. I gave specific praise. I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud. And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays. On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view! I get to see who you really are!”
I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!! I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds. I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success. Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.
For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation. Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while. For any of us that would daunting. For a teenager, it can be terrifying. Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.
Be kind and compassionate to one another.