I’m always nervous when I meet new kids. I want them to like me; when a kid doesn’t like you, you have some work to do on yourself. Kids are like dogs that way–they can smell your fear and your issues. I worried about the kind of chaos that can happen with groups of children–over the summer I worked with young people at a women’s shelter, and they had not mastered sitting still and listening, not even the fourteen-year-old.
Also, the situation feels reminiscent of my own elementary school days, the lone white girl in the classroom, hoping to be accepted, hoping to be trusted. Of course, now I’m the adult, and I don’t want to be viewed as the white lady who thinks she’s doing something charitable and patronizing. I might be the white lady, but I want to write with them and watch them grow as writers. So I have already loaded myself with worry. I knew I didn’t need to, though. Kids are kids, no matter what.
I met eight lovely little girls, ranging in age from eight to eleven. Some of them were very neat and tidy, every hair in place, shirt clean and tucked in. Some had hairdos that looked like a roughly put together pony tail had met a high wind, their clothes to match. They were all bright-eyed and energetic, even though it was five-o’clock at the end of a school day.
All of them were excited to be part of a writers group.
When I arrived at Tidewater Park Elementary, I ran into the principal, Dr. Sharon Phillips, in the parking lot. Dr. Phillips is an experienced educator who has worked for Norfolk Public Schools for a long time. Her affection and hope for the children at her school is palpable, whether I am talking with her alone, or if she is chatting with students in the hallway. She treats them with respect and pride. She remembered I was coming when she saw me, so I knew this first class might be a bit disorganized. But Dr. Phillips also has a calmness about her that assured me all was well.
If there is one thing my own children have taught me, it’s that it is good to make plans as long as you understand that nothing is likely to go that way.
So I had a plan: Each child would get a notebook. She would write her name on the book and then decorate it however she liked with stickers I had brought. “Make it yours,” I would say. We would talk about writing and what sorts of things we’d be doing each Wednesday afternoon. And then we’d dive in to my first exercise.
We went inside to gather up some kids for my group and find a quiet room. The face of a clock in the hallway admonishes “Say No to Drugs.” Inside, the school looks like most urban public schools; it looks just like the one I attended in New York. Painted cement-block hallways are punctuated with colorful student work on bulletin boards and doors decorated by teachers. We found some kids in the hallway who had gone to use the bathroom and were waiting for each other with a member of the afterschool program. They became mine. Dr. Phillips said there would be more next time. I only had a half hour with them for our first meeting.
They couldn’t wait to see what we would do–they suggested I learn their names first of all (I loved that they thought I needed this prompting–they were already helping me). So I learned names–Gina, Kimora, Essence, Aaliyah, Khamiyah, Mikayla, Jameria, and Ariana–and we decorated notebooks. The appearance of Hello Kitty stickers was met with the same joy they would’ve inspired among any group of girls that age, anywhere. They vied for the hearts, rainbows, and stars. We chatted, and I answered questions about myself. I told them how excited I had been all day to meet them (anxiety and excitement are so closely aligned, aren’t they?). I told them a little of what we’d be doing, and I listened to them and began to get a sense of their personalities. The very tidy girls told me all about their excellent grades in writing, and they tried to keep the less poised kids in line. The girls who were a bit less tucked in took it all in stride and did not let their friends’ need for order phase them.
At no point did I have solid control. Someone was always talking. But it was okay. I had given them a lot of shiny stickers. They were little girls. When time was up, without being asked, they all helped gather up our supplies. One by one, they left the room and ran back down to homework time. They were all smiles, saying thank you and “see you next week.” Essence hugged me. She left the room and came back a minute later for another hug.
There’s no doubt that the children at this school face challenges, even if only economic. But what’s also clear is that they are children–bright, ready to learn, by turns silly and serious, delightful. And like all people, they will benefit from having a forum in which to express themselves, to speak about who they are, in whatever form that takes in their sticker-laden notebooks. I want to help make that happen.