On Thursday at 826la East, we had a chapbook release party for the book the kids in this year's after school tutoring program wrote over the course of several weeks. They imagined creatures, gave details, developed plot, edited, and the people at 826 put all their stories into a book. At the release, some of the kids got up and read their stories to the rest of us. Some of them were super nervous, but also really wanted to read. You could tell. They were proud but didn't want to show it. Were shy but wanted to share their accomplishments with their friends and tutors. I was nervous for them. In the first session, two of my girls, J and V kept telling me their hearts were pounding and this made my heart start pounding. I knew they'd do great, but I could just feel their nerves and their pride, and it overwhelmed me. In the second session, D, the girl I work with most frequently, the girl who has become a friend to me over the past year, 11 years old, a fucking firecracker like no other girl I've ever met there, she read her short piece. The chapbook takes its title from the last line of her story: He Can't Stop Time Because Time Flies.
She floors me. D does. He can't stop time because time flies. I have never come up with a line as simple and perfect and true as that in my life. And she didn't even want to write a story! Every day it was a struggle to get her to put pen to paper. But I practically begged her, because there is something so epic inside that tiny person. She looked like Michael Jackson up there in her fedora, turned sideways toward the mic. Some of the kids had the tutors sign their chapbooks, kind of like year books, and in D's I wrote: I am so proud of you. You know you my girl. After a few minutes, she went to read what I wrote, put her book down, started to grab her homework, looked at me and said, "I know I am."
I don't talk about 826 much on here, which is strange because it's a huge part of my life. Every Thursday, I drive from campus after teaching freshman writing, I drive to Echo Park to tutor elementary school students. I think I don't talk about it because it feels like a separate part of my life from everything else I do. But I realized on Thursday that that couldn't be farther from the truth. What happens at 826 is the kind of thing that made me who I am. When I was asked in a questionnaire last semester why I volunteer at 826, I said something about how the kids inspire me. And that is 100% true. But that's not really what brought me to that place. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I've been taking inventory, reconciling my past with my present heartbreak, trying to find where I am in the mess that's left. No matter how terrible I felt last semester, no matter how many times I bailed on yoga or on seeing my friends, I never skipped an 826 tutoring session. And here's why:
I volunteer at 826la because I never had friends growing up. I don't say this to elicit pity. I didn't care that I didn't have friends. I mean, I cared, but I got so used to it from such a young age that I let any negative feelings about the subject drift toward the background of my thoughts. I was an anxious kid. I was always thinking my house would burn down. In addition to my parents, two other adults helped raise me: my grandmother, who lived with us, and my babysitter, who spent every week day with us until I was 6 and my grandma moved in. When I was 9 years old, the only two people to sign my yearbook were my bus driver, Sue, and my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Leslie. I had a best friend who was my neighbor, but she was a grade younger than me so I never saw her at school. And she was always in charge in our friendship, so it was less like a friendship and more like a competition in which I always lost but never fought for anything different. If we played t-rex & velociraptor, she always got to be the velociraptor. If we played jungle cats, she always got to be the black panther or the leopard, whichever one was more desirable to both of us at the time. On swim team, she always had faster times, always made it to State. I made it to State once in 6 years. She never signed my year book.
I never knew how to connect to other kids. One day, a new girl at school was left out because she didn't have a jump rope at recess. I had two jump ropes at home so the next day I brought mine and I brought my extra one for her. She looked at me and said "no thank you," and went off with the other girls. I think I still have this issue to an extent. I lack something necessary to make a good first impression on people. And kids are so fickle that I never stood a chance back then. But that's not the point. The point is this: Adults were my only friends. Not all of them, by any means, but a few of them. My babysitter, my grandma, my bus driver, the lunch ladies, my 2nd grade teacher, my 7th grade teacher. They saw something in me that kids my age [I include myself in that category] couldn't see. And I lived off their attention and their support. I didn't need much. I was a shy, quiet kid [yeah, I know that if you know me now you're probably laughing at the idea that I used to never say anything to anyone, but it's true]. The adults in my life sustained me until I found my fellow outsiders in the theater department in high school. The adults are what kept me going. I wanted to impress them. I wanted them to feel like their admiration of me [or whatever it was], was for good reason. I can feel this with some of the kids I tutor. Not all of them, of course. Most kids are good at making friends with other kids. And even the ones I've bonded with the most, they have friends. Or at least it looks like they do. But they seem unsure, sometimes, about their place in the world. And some of them want to be grown up so badly. And when D asked me to sign her chapbook, I instantly had a flashback to when I asked my bus driver to sign my yearbook. Something I haven't thought about since I was a kid. I read what she wrote back then over and over again. It wasn't much at all. It wasn't even inspiring. But it was written proof that I had a friend who actually knew my name and was willing to put the effort into writing a few words just for me. D is a tough girl. She always says she doesn't care. She can be disobedient. She acts out. While she was writing her story for the chapbook, she and I weren't getting along too well. But when I saw her final story printed on the page in the chapbook, my name in the last line, I knew her aggression toward me recently was all show. And when she looked me in the eye and said, "I know I am," I knew suddenly and immediately exactly why it is that I do this. If I can make even one kid feel less alone, I feel like I will have started to repay the kindness of the adults who did that for me. This isn't about "giving back to my community." This is a selfish endeavor, as I believe most volunteering is. I owe something to the universe, and 826 gives me a way to pay up. In the mean time, I fall in love with these kids, they pull me out of myself so I can stop sorting my life out for just a few hours, so I can stop accounting for where I went wrong. And I get to re-learn long division again, which is kinda cool.