The writing contest ended yesterday with these results. We have four completed stories ready to be sent to the judges next week. Two of the entrants did not complete the session in order to provide a completed story. Although the "results" will not be in until judging is done, I wanted to write something about my thoughts as well as feelings about the contest.
I started this contest with the idea that maybe we in Portland could do something to find and encourage the adolescents there to spend a part of their summer reading and using their writing skills instead of other typical summer activities. That happened and I am overwhelmed with the feeling I have after working with six of the children from my old neighborhood at the library that meant so much to me. This is because so much more happened that goes far beyond “readin’, writing and arithmetic.”
The students ranged in age from 10 to 13 years and although they live in a depressed neighborhood with a lot of stereotypes about them and their home life, working with them was one of the most joyful experiences of my entire teaching career (25 years). There was a mix of so-called "races," although I personally detest this term.
There were two African-American girls and two African-American boys. There were two "white" boys for want of a better description. Only one child lived in a home with both parents. The others were from single family homes with females as the head of household. All of the parents were hard working and dedicated to making a safe, happy home for their children in a neighborhood that can be frightening sometimes. One thing that astounded me was the support that the African-American males had from men who were not physically related to them. These men were gentle and caring and made sure that those boys came to all the sessions and cooperated with all the adults working with them - and there were many. I could not have produced these results working alone. It does, indeed, take a village to raise a child in today's world.
Three experiences stand out for me. First was the socializing and talking over pizza that took place each week before the session started. What happened here left a lasting impression on me in terms of helping children from different living situations learn about each other and to respect differences. Not only did the adults get to know the children, but the children started to learn from each other.
There was one student who had moved to Louisville from a rural environment in Bardstown. His mother had home schooled him until last year when the demands of a growing family meant she sent him to public school for the first time. From day one, it was obvious that this child was a self-starter and also a little fearful of living in an urban slum. His family, however, was doing urban homesteading and had chickens. Their home near the river allowed the young boy to see hawks and other animals that he talked about with the other children “of the street.” There was a conversation about the family’s chickens and one of the street children said, “I would kill the chicken to eat it if I had a chicken.”
Before I could frame a response, the young boy stated very simply, “We use our chickens for eggs, but when they get too old to lay eggs anymore, we eat them.” What a wonderful teaching moment for everyone and how pleasant it was! I don’t believe the “street kid” really knew that chickens laid the eggs he ate. I think this experience will make both boys feel more comfortable with students different from them in the fall.
At the start of the program, I took time to individually talk with each student to find out what they wanted to write about. As I sat at the table with a young African-American student who was a bit overweight, I noticed he was having trouble breathing and kept patting his chest. It suddenly occurred to me that his child was about to have a full flown panic attack. When I asked him about it, he said he was really nervous. I gently pulled away and told him to just sit there and breathe until he felt comfortable. This young man’s choice for a story was “How to Become a Bully.” As he told me the plot, I began to realize that this young man had had quite an experience with being bullied himself. His ending showed that he had had the opportunity to work with adults to help him understand this. The young man I had worked with during the first session did not return. Instead, the one I saw as I walked into the library the next week looked a lot like him, but he had a great big smile and came and gave me a big hug. If that had been the only thing that happened during this contest, it would have been enough for me.
The day of the last session I worked individually with the young man who had wanted to eat the chicken. The goal was to get the story he had written into a format that could be read and understood. I had worked with him before and knew that getting anything in writing was difficult. I worked with him the entire session and was able to get a story with an introduction, middle and an end. He typed it all and used the computer tools very well to help with spelling and grammar. The biggest challenge was in getting him to use periods and separate his ideas, but we did it! We were just finishing as his supervisor came to get him. When I told him we had completed the story, he smiled broadly and asked me if he could get a copy printed. Of course, we gave him a copy. Unfortunately, this young man will probably not win one of the three monetary awards, but what I saw happen with him was priceless and much more lasting than a Kroger gift cart that will buy some groceries and school supplies for him.
As I sit here typing these words, my heart is full and I cannot express what this summer has meant to me. I had a vacation the month before the contest and traveled to some great places with a wonderful friend. I also had the opportunity to “escape the heat” and travel to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia for the month of July. I can’t say there weren’t some times when I wished I could have gone there, but now I know that no matter how many pictures I took to bring back with me, that would soon just be another experience on my “bucket list.” This experience will live in my heart forever and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.