Before I began a tutoring program in inner-city St. Louis, all I knew was that I would be teaching reading and writing skills to third through fifth grade students who were not reaching the state-required levels. Additionally, I was to serve as a mentor just by being someone who graduated high school and attended college -- many of the adults in these kids' lives did not.
Our task was to teach commitment, determination and responsibility. I knew trying to impart these values and skills would be a difficult but rewarding process. If I was lucky, I would help these kids stay the course in their education and hopefully their lives, but I never considered how much they might teach me in the process.
On my first day as a tutor, I walked down the fluorescent-lit hallways and into the cafeteria, which was filled with approximately 30 children, all African-American. The majority of the tutors were Caucasian.
There seemed to be an invisible barrier between the two groups because of our evident differences in age and background and our lack of knowledge -- maybe even ignorance -- about each other. I could feel each group clinging to what was familiar and being resistant to hear someone else's story. But I was determined to break down the wall between us and show my students that we do in fact share values and experiences that can allow us to develop a deep connection.
I sat down at a table with three 10-year-old girls. They looked at me with curiosity and confusion, as if they were seeing an alien.
"I'm Jessica," I said to their awed stares. After a minute, their silence broke. They asked me questions about my favorite music and color, and I was transported back to fourth grade. I loved answering every question, and we bonded over our mutual love of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé.
We immediately had a connection. My playfulness fed their curiosity, and we discovered many things in common. I could feel their preconceived notions of me disintegrating as we spoke, and I felt the same way. We were together to learn, and we had lots in common to connect us.
We worked together all school year. At one point in the curriculum, the students had to read a children's newspaper aloud and discuss the topics it presented. Then, the girls were supposed to write about one of the topics.
In the beginning, the girls were hesitant to write because they had a hard time spelling or thinking of what to write. For example, one of the topics was about "giving back." The girls had a hard time relating to it. I told them that it's possible to write about something even if it hasn't happened to you personally. I suggested they write as if they could assist anyone in whatever way possible. The girls thought about the question in this way instead, and wrote down beautiful tales of donating clothing and giving food to those in need.
Every time they had an obstacle in writing, I would try to frame the question in a relevant and interesting way. After a while, they started to do this practice themselves, and by the end of the year, they needed very little prompting before they began writing. They improved their critical thinking and motivation skills immensely over the months.
The girls also taught me lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I once asked them if they had been playing outside because it was sunny that day, and one girl told me that she couldn't because her neighborhood was too dangerous. Another girl told me that all of her cousins moved into her house, and it was fun to hang out with them, though I couldn't help but imagine how cramped and challenging it must've been. The girls would tell me these things without my asking, and they would tell these stories with a nonchalance and positive attitude that was admirable and extraordinary.
I was astounded by their stories and how they conquered every day as if it was the best day of their lives. They loved being together and with family, and they didn't need much more in order to be happy.
I hope that these girls never lose their ability to see the positivity in every situation, and I know that in my own life, I can definitely follow their example. They taught me to remember and heed all the blessings in my life, and try not to dwell on the more negative aspects. They were not bogged down by their reality, and they enjoyed all victories, small and large. And whether that was receiving a new "Frozen" pen or a new backpack, they were excited at everything, and were my tutors in happiness.