Unsung Hero of 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

While doing the Blog Challenge, Day 21's prompt was about a new person in your life, and the furthering of the prompt asked about an unsung hero. When I realized I had to split it, I also realized that my unsung hero(es) deserved their own individual post. They actually deserve much more, but it's all I can give for now.

Thanks to an amazing program called Humanities Out There (abbreviated HOT. Yeah.), I was able to tutor/mentor 10th-grade students at Century High School in Santa Ana, CA. Myself and a group of 10ish students went to the school once a week for roughly 20 weeks to teach History. I can't even express how much this program changed my life. It is so rewarding and I am so proud that I got to be a part of it. Don't get caught up in the fact that the school is in Orange County. Where the school is located is not the safest of areas, and most of the students are classified as "at-risk." I'm not saying there are kids shooting up in every dark corner of the campus, but I am saying that these children are not the Prada-toting, Chanel-headband wearing you see in The OC or Gossip Girl.

When we first came to the classroom, most of the kids in there were a bit hostile, uninterested in school and learning, obnoxious, and hardly looked at us once they realized we were there to be "teachers" to them. They were only there because they had to be, and even then they still might not come. Often a class could be 35 kids one week, and 15 the next. I remember sitting with the group of 4 kids who I would eventually call "mine" on that first day and being terrified. First, none of them would speak to me. When they realized I wasn't letting them go anywhere until they did, I found out most of them had problems reading (a reminder that these are 15-16 year old kids), and all of them weren't even considering college. Not because they didn't want to, but they were positive they wouldn't get in and that all it did was impede a life of working to survive. I quickly learned to never know what to expect, because their lives are so different from what mine was at 15. In a way not meant to be disrespectful, I had the shock of my life during our 12th week when we found out over half our students didn't even know what Hawaii was, much less where it was located. It's a strange shock when you discover that, because it almost seems absurd...but then it makes you realize just different life can be.

By the end of the program, I am extremely proud to say that all of our kids raised their hands when we asked them if they were going to apply to college in 2 years. My kids not only said they were going to apply, but they had choices picked out and majors they were considering. They were raising their hands to participate in class discussions, volunteering for presentations, reading on their own. I can't even describe what it's like to see your kid walk into the classroom and immediately smile at you and start telling you about their week, knowing that it took over 2 weeks for them to even speak their name to you. It's nothing short of amazing to be able to see the difference individual attention makes. They were craving education and were so confident in themselves and their future...I imagine this is what it feels like to be a proud mother.

The entire program and all its participants - tutors/mentors/advisers and students alike - are all my unsung heroes, but I do have to mention two of my kids. I adored all 8 of my kids, but two specific boys left a very deep mark on my heart: Oscar and Eric.

Eric was the introverted one, always drawing on his papers and not paying attention. In the first 10 weeks I worked with him, he never finished any of his assignments and I heard maybe 3 sentences from him total. The first time I ever saw a light in his eyes and a response in him was when I asked him about the basketball he was carrying; apparently he was a point guard for the school team, and he thought basketball was his one defining feature. It was brief, but it was an opening. The day we had a writing assignment where the children were assigned to write a 12-line poem about their life was his turning point. He had never been given the freedom of writing about his life. He had never even considered that his life was something of worth to be written about. But when he saw how eager us tutors were to hear their thoughts, something in him came alive. For the first time I think he realized that he was important to someone, and that he mattered. In the last month of our meetings, he and I had a 10-minute conversation about music (I should have told him I listened to Public Enemy from day 1!), he turned in all of his assignments on time and completed, and he even started making jokes with me. I literally went back to my apartment crying the day he came to me to tell me about his week on his own. He was still quiet, but it became a characteristic, not a crutch. The last day of our meeting, he said I was the best person he had ever met, I inspired him, drew me an absolutely beautiful butterfly (not entirely appropriate since he drew it on my evaluation form, but I take what I get), and hugged me for a good long while when the bell rang. He wanted to go to college, and I have faith that he will.

Oscar was almost the complete opposite of Eric. I will always remember my first impression: he didn't come to my group the first week we met because he wanted to stay with his friend rather than be split. So he lied and said he was in another mentor's group. When I found that out, I was definitely thinking, Oh man, here it comes. The second week we made him come to my group. Oscar was the class clown, always raising his hand but never listening to questions. He had brief glimpses of trying, but most of the time he just said whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. In terms of education levels (which I wouldn't put too much stock in normally), Oscar was definitely the farthest behind. He had the most trouble reading, his spelling was atrocious, complex sentence structure was a no-go, and most of the period was spent telling him what words meant - forget trying to finish the assignment. I honestly believe Oscar just needed attention and a little pushing, because unlike Eric, he never really had a turning point. Eric was like a lightswitch; Oscar was the student you can track the growth of on a constant increasing scale. He was willing to learn, he'd just never been pushed to. The more work I gave him, the more he tried; and the more he tried, the more he did. It was stunning to see him grow, and I'm confident that when the program ended, he was probably one of the brightest in the class. Oscar was an incredibly charming, likeable guy, and he eventually realized that he could be well-liked and intelligent as well. In one of our lesson plans, we discussed street art, and I could see his self-image change. Oscar would not admit that he has done graffiti before (seeing as how it's illegal), but he constantly writes everything in graffiti-style on his papers. During our lesson plan, we told him that even though it is illegal, graffiti is a form of art, and if you learn how to do it in a legal fashion, it IS art, and it IS ok. I saw the revelation in his head that he was an artist, not a criminal. As time went on, his self-appreciation and confidence continued to build. Oscar was the one who broke my heart by telling me he saw no point to college, that it wouldn't help him survive in his neighbourhood, that he wasn't worth the money to go to college. But the last day we met, I asked him if he was going to go to college - he gave me a list of seven colleges he was looking into, and three areas of study he wanted to do. One of which was art. I was absolutely and completely floored, and I don't think I've ever been more proud. When we hugged good-bye, he told me he felt smart--something he had never, ever thought before. Then he told me I was one of the best people he'd ever met in his life, and I meant every word when I told him the same thing.

Oscar and Eric give me hope in this world. Their stories are ones that encompass so much of what I love about humanity. We struggle, we have problems, we think so little of ourselves sometimes. But with pushing, love, a little attention, and a lot of faith, we become something. We learn that we can become something. It's the human capacity to learn; about life, about others, about oneself. And more than that, it's the human capacity to grow, to develop.


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I'm fairly obsessed with penguins, Peanuts (the comic), and the TV show Friends. Parentheses may or may not be (over)used in this blog, and books will pretty much be the only thing I ever talk about because they are my One True Love.


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