Throughout last year, I participated in a volunteer project, called Dear Successful Stranger, where adults from around the world became pen-pals to a class of sixth grade students in rural Dumas, Arkansas. Designed and organized by their young teacher, sent to an area that I assume can be described as a mundane maelstrom by Teach for America, her objectives were elegantly simple and beautiful: to enhance the technical writing and reading comprehension skills of her students and, more importantly as well as more elusive, to broaden their sense of global perspective and sharpen their desire for education. A once devoted volunteer to a number of incredible causes, I was immediately interested, interested in spending my time giving to what I knew to be a beautiful endeavor and interested in learning about a new person, having the opportunity to hear their story and to share mine in return.
The innovative teacher provided some helpful initial guidance to the batch of strangers writing, for our introduction letters; while she did provide a background on her students' general reading level, prepping our expectations, I still did not fully understand what I was getting myself into. I was assigned to two young girls, whose ability to write coherently, and read, were even more remedial than I originally was anticipating, even given their teacher's brief history. Our barriers to correspondence were grand: technical ability and education, comprehension, age, geography, socioeconomic circumstance. I was challenged. And the challenge was a powerful one. I wanted to write in a compelling way to these girls, I wanted to engage them and impart knowledge. I wanted some of my words to touch them, tickle their neurons and their sense of wonder, be something almost visceral for them. Perhaps this was idealistic or naive or both, but those were the sentiments of the mission.
When I browse back through our letters, as usual, I am critical and think about how I could have done better, worked harder, poured forth more and more and more. But I am also proud of myself, and proud of my two students. I write profusely, for a living, for pleasure, for catharsis, for exploration. My writing has taken many forms and mediums, depending on the intent, the audience; these letters were some of the most difficult for me. I wanted to balance honesty and realism with hope and optimism; my innate cynicism had to be tempered. More concretely, I had to constrain, consciously, my vocabulary, my sentence structure. I was forced to really move outside of my own head and preferences, which is what drives more acute sensibilities and technique in writing. It was a challenge, but the reward was vast, afforded the opportunity to glimpse brief moments of these two young girls' journeys.
At the end of the year, at the start of the annual summer languish, each student sent their stranger a recommendation for a book they would like to read. I happily ordered the selections for my two girls, but then also wanted to share with them one of my absolute favorite novels when I was their age, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Unfortunately, the story, symbolism, and themes may be lost on my girls, at least now, but I hope it is a book the keep, try to read later, and cherish.
(image taken from Film School Rejects)