Next week the second year of the BRMA Summer Writing Institute begins. Last year it started with a whim, inspired by Dr. Alfred Tatum’s work with African American males in Chicago. My colleagues offer a great week-long summer arts camp for our middle school students. For a week, the students use writing and drama and art to explore stereotypes and begin to develop their own positive racial identity. In thinking about Dr. Tatum’s work, I saw possibility for building on the work the students started in middle school through an exploration of empowering texts and writing.
Last year we had 4 days. Not nearly enough time. And the students said so. So, this year, through a grant my wonderful director, Graig Meyer, wrote, we have 3 weeks, 12 actual days together (Fridays are reading and writing days on our own! Just like college). I’ve made arrangements for two authors to come and work with the students. Kelly Starling Lyons and Matt de la Peña will each spend time helping the students explore their stories. That part is important to me because Kelly and Matt look more like my students than I do. I want my students to hear from others that their stories are important. I want them to see themselves as writers. And to do that, I think it is vitally important they have models they can identify with. It doesn’t hurt that Kelly and Matt are two of the nicest people/authors I have had the privilege of meeting!
The UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work has graciously given us a classroom space. We have new laptop computers awaiting our use. Writer’s notebooks and an array of pens and pencils are on the way. I’ve planned lunch menus and snacks. Copies of Kelly and Matt’s books are sitting patiently awaiting readers. In my head I’ve reviewed the logistics of getting everything set up for the first day…signs, parking, an agenda. There is a list with 18 names of high school students who I hope will all arrive next Monday.
But what I am most excited about is the anticipation. The not knowing. No matter how much I plan. No matter how many details I think through and write down, it will still be the students and what they share that will shape our time together. Just in 4 days last summer, there were so many moments of surprise. So many moments when I stepped back and just watched these young people find the possibilities in what they have to say. The writing they shared took my breath away. One of the most powerful pieces was by a young man who wrote:
Beaner, Wetback, illegal alien.
You scream at me,
You deprive me of my dreams
My voice my thoughts and my self-esteem.
You never stop to think of me
You judge us all with ease.
But when that day comes,
When you need my help
I will extend my hand
Despite what you said back then.
And hopefully you will change your mind
about this Beaner, Wetback, illegal alien.
I’ll never forget that he and I conversed about the poem. He wasn’t sure how to end it. The last line wasn’t there yet. I called over a writing coach who was working with us, a UNC student who is, herself, a gifted, award-winning author. She worked with him for a bit. We were all struggling for a powerful ending. Another student finally piped up” Why don’t you just repeat your first line? Those are powerful words. Repeating them is like throwing it back in the face of the people you are talking to.” The writing coach and I looked at each other and laughed! It was perfect. And the students didn’t need us. They were on their way to becoming writers, able to help and support each other on the journey.
There are many other moments from that short time together. Moments I never planned for or anticipated. And those are the moments I am anxiously awaiting as Monday draws closer. I know when our time together ends, my students will have taught me more than I will ever be able to teach them. I can’t wait!