The kids of Galileo Academy near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco live in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, and the group I’d volunteered to tutor on essay-writing reflected that. The low-income, first-generation Chinese and Mexican students I was assigned through the 826 Valencia writing center, were simultaneously straddling two or more cultures while struggling with the normal pressures of being teenagers. Our job as volunteers in the AVID program was to assist their teacher — a kind, devoted young white woman to whom they were fiercely loyal — in helping them surmount the barriers to higher education due to their inability to express themselves adequately in English. The culmination of the pre-college program — their essay — was the final product that would possibly be reviewed in their applications; for some it was what might distinguish them for advancement to state or community college, where they could help their families rise above menial labor, which many of the kids did each day after school in addition to studying.
The twenty or so students who welcomed us on our arrival had positive attitudes, didn’t get into trouble, and were even involved in helping arrange weeknight and weekend fundraisers where they sold candy and their teacher spoke to various audiences about their program. Still, they were jaded enough to know that the odds were stacked against them, and beneath their polite, eager exterior, I could detect an accumulating cynicism that could easily blossom upon the inevitable rejection of some of their college applications.
When we introduced ourselves on the first day, I mentioned that I’d once worked for a newspaper, and had some stories published in magazines and literary reviews. When I sat with my four students in a circle of desks, I asked if anyone had a draft with them for me to look at. One had forgotten his at home, another had accidentally deleted hers when trying to save it on her computer, and the other two had not yet bothered to correct the mistakes circled by their teacher on the first draft from two weeks prior. After reading through the two drafts available and glancing at the course syllabus their teacher had provided them at the beginning of the quarter, I asked the kids what they thought the instructions meant, and proceeded to discuss how following her guidelines would help make their essays more coherent and enjoyable for readers.
After instructing the two with freshly-marked-up drafts in front of them to give it another try, I asked the Chinese boy about what his missing essay entailed, and he instead described a short story he was writing about how his cohort had come to terms with the shooting death of a school friend, and the confusing multicultural customs they’d managed to navigate in attempting to discover the meaning of life at sixteen. He then asked me if I’d like to see his story.
Over the weekend, I e-mailed the teacher, and asked if it was OK for me to make a detour with this student and have him bring in the story the following week for me to critique. With her permission, and caveat that he still had to write the assigned essay, she said she would let him know.
The following week, having thought since about what we could realistically expect, I returned to Galileo with a view that whether or not these students succeeded in getting admitted to college one year hence was beyond my ability to influence, but what I could contribute was a degree of confidence in their worth and potential, a desire to write better, and a joy of learning to do so.
The Mexican girl had rewritten her deleted essay, but could not print it out until we went to the computer lab halfway through class. The Chinese boy had his story in duplicate, in order for me to read it at home; he still hadn’t begun his essay. In the computer lab, most of the students sat in small groups around terminals looking at movie stars or talking about boyfriends or sports. The teacher circulated helping the handful of students who were trying to figure out how to do research that produced credible results. When the Mexican girl in my cohort brought me her essay, I retired to a relatively quiet corner with my red pen.
Her essay was about the new security cameras on campus and the ambience they created from the perspectives of students and teachers, as well as some justifications from the school board. Good basic journalism, but with a natural flair for capturing the reader’s interest at the outset — something she had not been taught but rather absorbed somehow from the world around her. After making some minor suggestions, I told her she would make a good reporter, and might want to consider journalism school. She beamed in only the way sixteen-year-old girls can, and I felt blessed beyond words.
That evening, sitting in my reading chair, I opened the folder with the boy’s story, and realized right off that grammar was beyond our immediate task — it would be too time-consuming and distract us from the important stuff. He had the ability and inclination to write feature stories or novels, but he needed a lot of attention to structure, and his English was atrocious. I decided to emphasize his strong points, note some of the ways he could improve, and told him to rewrite it ten or twelve times, focusing on one task at a time.
On our final day, we all shared cookies someone had baked, and one of the kids pulled me aside and told me the teacher had lost her family in a traffic accident when she was young, but that she had not given up. I had a reassuring feeling they wouldn’t either.