Sunday, September 18, 2011

Real life, not a book

About 7:30 each morning, I hear the buses pull up.  They come from all over the east side of the county:  Merced, Atwater, Livingston, and points in between.  Places known for their poverty, low levels of education, teen pregnancy rate, gangs.  We've been written up in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times for these things.  Now turn your thinking cap around backwards.  We have also sought and won the right to be home to the tenth campus in the University of California system,  a crown jewel of the American scientific research engine, and the planned home of a future medical school.  We are strange, and we are beautiful, in my town.

Michelle Obama spoke at UC Merced's
 first graduation ceremony because students
 wrote her  letters and asked her to come.
Our students, too, are different, and beautiful.  My school, Sequoia High School, is a community day school, and is therefore more different than all the other differents.  Secretly, I also think our students are more beautiful.

Some of my students have been featured on A&E network's Beyond Scared Straight, the Corcoran Prison edition.  All of my students' stories are varied and detailed, and I will not tell them to you, because in case they read this, I love them far too much to have them believe that I'm talking about them personally.  But you can use your imagination, and it will not fail you.  Start with foster homes and the statistics I gave you above, and you will arrive in the right places.  You will be right if you conclude that some of them are grieving for parents and siblings and friends lost to indescribable violence, and some have children of their own.  Some are expelled from regular schools because of things they've done.  That's enough to know.

So we're reading this book called The Three Doctors.  It's part of a program called X-Treme Reading, and we are one of the only school districts in the nation - I really think the ONLY district, but I want to be sure so I don't exaggerate - that is piloting the program to the extent that we are.  For this reason, important people at University of Kansas watch our progress closely and personally.

Note - part of what makes us strange and beautiful:  we have hard times, but we try REALLY HARD here.  That's how we got the new University.  That's how our Congressman (who grew up a little boy from Atwater) got one of our high schools $450,000 for an Engineering Academy, so our students can go to the brand new Engineering School at the new University.  That's how Charles Ogletree and Daniel Silva and Bernard Berrian, and hundreds of Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII and then landed on their feet, came from here.  Having hard times and trying hard.

But I digress.

We're reading The Three Doctors.  The Three Doctors are real people who have been on Oprah.  They grew up in New Jersey and were once little boys who had lives just like my students, and now they are doctors who have a Three Doctors Foundation, LLC, that helps kids see a better future.  You can look at their pictures in the middle of the book and watch their faces and their postures change from streetwise and arrogant and scared, to distinguished and kind and mature as they grow up.  My students want to know:  HOW DID THEY DO THAT?  None of my adults, after being a kid like me, grew up and did exactly that, they say.

Since we watched The Freedom Writers and are journaling our life stories in my class, my students asked me, why don't we write to the doctors and ask them to come see us?  Even if they can't come, maybe we can talk to them some other way, skyping, or telephone. So we did.  We wrote them letters, and we're mailing them next week after we've made them beautiful.

On Friday we, my class and I, called The Three Doctors Foundation, LLC, on my cell phone, too, and I put them on speaker while I asked the lady there some questions.  You could tell even from the other end of the line that she thought my students were very cool, because they were writing letters to these doctors she knows personally, right then and there while we spoke to her from 3,000 miles away.  There was a twinkle in her voice that I know must have been reflected in her eyes, and you could hear the twinkle.

But the best part was, even the very sound of her voice on the other end of the line made my students' eyes light up very bright, and hopeful.  Even just the sound of her voice did that.

So because of that, we really, really hope that we get to meet the doctors, or that at least we could talk to them somehow personally.  We are going to work and beg and supplicate, and fundraise if we have to, and seek permission like crazy in hopes of making it happen.  But even if we NEVER exchange words with the doctors themselves (but I believe we will, no jinx), the very act of TRYING HARD will have made a difference to my students.  We are writing other letters, too, and someone who has tried hard and landed on their feet will come and tell us how they did it.  And we will always have our effort with The Three Doctors to talk about, and how it made us think differently.

By doing this, my students will have rewired themselves just a little to be bright-eyed and hopeful all the time, and to try hard every day.  Maybe someday, ten years from now, they will remember that they journaled their life stories, and they will use their material to write their own book, The Three . . . I'll let you finish it.  Or better yet, I'll let them finish it.

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