San Diego and The Starfish Story

I apologize for having neglected my blog for the past few days, however, it has been a very eventful week.

WARNING: THIS WILL BE A LONG POST!

Those of you who know me personally know that working with disadvantaged youth is a driving force and passion in my life and career. I have worked with students for ten years now, and some of my most rewarding experiences have been teaching leadership and character education to students through hands on games and group activities. Throughout my years doing this, I have always wanted to someday put together and write a whole curriculum/program and bring it to students. This has been my greatest professional goal. Well, go figure- my superbly awesome company put their faith in me this summer and let me run with this goal of mine, under their name. I was completely thrilled to find out that San Diego High School will in fact be the first campus to pilot our program! I was over the moon to find out I would be heading to San Diego to train the team of teachers and my fellow directors in the program that I wrote.

After much preparation and anticipation, I drove down to San Diego Tuesday. Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of meeting a friend that I had made online through a mom's forum. It was my first experience meeting someone from the internet, and we had a complete blast. She lives on Coronado Island and took us to an awesome Mexican restaurant for dinner and then to the Hotel Del Coronado for drinks afterward. It was so much fun hanging out with her!

I spent the entire workday Wednesday training the team (including one of my local staffers, Stef, who'd traveled down with me) and it was a great and productive day. That evening, my co-workers and I spent the night checking out some of the cool places in downtown S.D. and the Gas Lamp District. What a far cry from downtown Fresno! I wish Fresno could get the whole revitalization thing down- it would be wonderful to have a safe and fun nightlife like S.D. does!

Thursday we spent the morning wrapping up training, and I ended by showing a clip from one of my all time favorite movies, Freedom Writers. The movie has served as an inspiration to me in my line of work (and in my life) since I saw it the first time. If you haven't seen it, please do. But, the scene from the movie shows students giving a toast to the changes they will make it their life- their ability to rise above the path they would likely be headed down had they not become determined to change the future for themselves.

This is the diary excerpt one of the students read in the clip:
5 a.m.—The sound of my alarm clock woke me to a dark room this morning. The sun wasn’t out yet, so I decided not to get up. My clock saw things differently and kept beeping.

I thanked my clock by throwing it on the floor. The beeping stopped. As I looked over to see where the clock had landed, I realized I, too, was lying on the floor. Why? Because I don’t have a bed. I turned on the lights so I could get started on my day. I walked past the closet mirror in the room to get my clothes. The mirror showed my sleeping space—a thick blanket and a pillow.

The mirror’s reflection also revealed that the room does not belong to me. It made me feel sad—to the point of crying. I grabbed my clothes from the closet and wailed down the long hallway to the bathroom. During my shower, I cried. Tears mixed with water streamed down my face. I welcomed the pain that came with the tears. It’s the only way I can deal with my current situation. The room, hallway, and bathroom don’t belong to me. This is not my home. My mom is down the hall sleeping in a room, but this is still not my home. I don’t have a home anymore.

5:30 a.m.—I’m out of the bathroom, done with my shower, and ready to go. I have to remind myself that today is the first day of my tenth-grade year at Wilson High School. I should be happy that I get a chance to see my friends after not seeing them all summer. But I wonder if my friends’ summer was as bad as mine. My summer was the worst in my short fourteen years of life. It all started with a phone call that I will never forget.

My mom was crying, begging, and pleading; asking for more time as if she were gasping for a last breath of air. Though I never paid attention to “adult matters,” this time I was all ears. I never wanted to see my mom cry.

As she hung up the phone, she turned around to see me standing there, confused and scared. I didn’t know what was wrong. She quickly held me as tight as she could, and said that she was sorry. She began to cry again, this time, harder. Her tears hit my shirt like bullets. She told me that we were going to be evicted and she kept apologizing to me, saying she failed me as a mother and provider. She was a month behind on the rent. The landlord was already money-hungry, so it made the situation worse. I was too young to get a job. The only job I could get in my neighborhood was selling drugs—so I decided to pass.

While kids were having fun enjoying the summer, I was packing my clothes and belongings into boxes and wondering where we were going to end up. My mom didn’t know what to do or where to go. We had no family to lean on. No money was coming in. Without a job, my mom didn’t have enough money to get another place. What to do? No father to help out either, just a single mom and her son.

The night before the sheriff was supposed to pay us an unwelcome visit, I prayed to God for a way out of this madness. Sad and depressed, I attempted to get some sleep that night in the hope that something good would happen.

The morning of our eviction, a hard knock on the door awoke me. The sheriff was here to do his job. We were moving all our stuff out as fast as we could. I started to look up to the sky, waiting for something to happen. I looked at my mom to see if she was all right because she was silent as she moved the stuff out.

Our pastor had a friend who had a nice big house where he lived by himself. The pastor’s friend, who was informed of our situation, welcomed us with open arms. The arms of a stranger were a lot more comfortable than the arms of the sheriff.

6 a.m.—I’m waiting for the bus. Flashbacks of this summer pass through my mind like a song repeating itself over and over. I try to tell myself it could have been worse. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I started to think the situation was my fault because I always asked for the top video games every Christmas and birthday. I should have asked for something less expensive; something we could afford.

6:45 a.m.—I’ve ridden one bus to catch another bus that will now take me directly to school. School…why bother going to school? What’s the use of going if I don’t have a place to live? When friends ask how my summer was, what am I going to say? I was evicted from my apartment? I don’t think so. I’m not going to tell a soul what happened. I knew everyone would be wearing new clothes, new shoes, and have new haircuts. Me? I’ll be wearing outfits from last year, old shoes, and no new haircut. I feel like it’s hopeless to try to feel good and make good grades. There’s no point to it.

7:10 a.m.—The bus stops in front of the school. My stomach feels like it’s tightening into a tiny little ball. I feel like throwing up. I keep thinking that I’ll get laughed at the minute I step off the bus. Instead, I’m greeted by a couple of my friends who were in my English class last year. At that point, it hits me: Ms. Gruwell, my crazy English teacher from last year, is really the only person who made me think of hope for my future. Talking with my friends about our English class and the adventures we had the year before, I begin to feel better.

7:45 a.m.—I receive my class schedule and the first teacher on the list is Ms. Gruwell in Room 203. I walk in the room and I feel as though all the problems in my life are not important anymore. I am home.



I really thought in this professional situation I would be able to get through it without tearing up- crap. I was so wrong! But, I wasn't the only one. It was in that moment, I think we all remembered how much kids today have to overcome and how much of an impact we have an opportunity to make. And had I accomplished nothing else this week- heck, this year, I feel that that was enough. I am so hopeful for the work to be done at San Diego High School in the upcoming weeks and hopefully other schools in the weeks to come.

I truly believe that if we care, we all have the power to make a difference. One other story has inspired me constantly. It's the Starfish Story:
Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?" The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean." "I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man. To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die." Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!" At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."

The story keeps me going when I am told discouraging things about my work with disadvantaged youth. I may not be able to change things for all of them, but if I can make a difference for one, it's ALL worth it.

When I returned home from S.D., I opened a box that had come in the mail from my friend Jen. It was a birthday gift from across the country- Jen lives in S.C. and though we've never met in person- I think we know each other better than many friends. Here is what she sent:
Our San Diego Training Team:Meeting my friend and her sweet lil' one:

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