So, after my training, http://shirahvollmermd.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/826la/, Miguel (not his real name, of course) sat down together for four hours carving out two personal statements, such that, if he wanted to, he could use these essays for his University of California application which is due November 30, 2011. I say this because Miguel, who likes to be called Mike, since he does not want people to think of him as hispanic, was unaware of the due date. This interchange, when I told him when the application was due and his subsequent shock, spoke volumes about the disparity between teenagers. Some adolescents write their statements over the summer, just to be sure they can spend the needed time to create the 500 word essays, whereas other teenagers, like Mike, are not coached to know how the process works. This coaching, no doubt, helps these kids prepare for four-year universities, for the good or bad of that.
There were two hundred “kids,” seniors from four inner-city high schools, paired with two hundred tutors, mostly women, some in their twenties, some in their fifties, with few others representing other age groups and gender. There was random assignment. A “kid” walked in, and one of the 826LA staff, said “sit here,” meaning they would sit next to a volunteer for the next four hours. Miguel sat down next to me, averting his gaze, sheepishly explaining to me that he does not know why he is here and he has “nothing to say for himself to get into college.” “That’s OK” I explain. “Let’s start by talking about your life and what’s meaningful to you,” I say, almost as if I am starting a psychotherapy visit, but trying to stay conscious that our purpose is to draft a personal statement, not to uncover the dynamics of his childhood. Yet, those two ideas are woven together. The more mature understanding of his past, the more compelling his personal statement will be.
Mike tells me he loves baseball and starts talking to me about a baseball player I did not recognize (that is not hard, by the way). Mike played baseball in high school, but with his poor grades, he could not continue on the team. “That’s OK,” I say, “you can talk about how you felt about that and what you learned from that experience.” Mike’s eyes finally brightened. “I can. I can talk about baseball. That is what I love. See, my hat, I have a hat with the team’s name on it,” Mike says with a new-found enthusiasm for the experience. After two hours of taking notes on Mike’s love of baseball, we pull out the loaned laptop and he begins to compose his essay. I am immediately impressed with how much more nimble he is using Word than I am. The generational divide, when it comes to technology, was so striking. If nothing else, he taught me things that Word could do that were surprising to me.
An hour later, we have an essay which surprises both of us. Mike turns out to be a deep thinker, despite his initial reluctance and shyness. He explained that because his family went through hard times, he turned to both playing and watching baseball as a way for him to cope with loss and trauma. He picked a baseball player to admire so that he could have goals to work towards. He sees college as a means to a better life; a better life than he has now and a better life than his parents have had. Together, we were proud of his product.
Mike thanks me, returns the laptop, and punches his friend in the arm, in an affable way. “How did you do, man?” he asks Eduardo. “Better than I thought,” Eduardo says. “Me too!” Mike says enthusiastically. Mike looks at me, then he looks at Eduardo, and says “let’s go home. I want to tell my mom about my essay.” I was teary, but mysteriously so. Mike and I had done good work. There was nothing sad about that. I guess I was worried for Mike. I was worried that despite our good work, he still needs a lot of support to go to college. Sure, personal statement day was a small step towards bringing communities together. Mike saw there were two hundred people taking a part of their weekend to help kids like him. My fellow volunteers and I saw hard-working teenagers wanting to make a better life for themselves. It was their weekend also. Maybe that is the fun of a day like that, but I still felt sad.