Feature Blog Post by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon
I walked into the classroom at 4 PM, when tutoring starts, and nine young men were already sitting down, working. They hadn’t had a creative writing workshop in a couple months because we were starting out the year focused on their schoolwork. I took turns sitting next to each of them in order to check the pulse (figuratively) of every student.
One young man was on the Poetry Foundation website, reading about how to submit his work to Poetry Magazine, one of the oldest and most prestigious literary magazines in the country. He said he had been submitting to a lot of contests but hadn’t had any luck yet. He had already been accepted into college and submitted an application to a job earlier that day. So, with no applications to work on, I guided him through a process that professional writers know well: submitting work, receiving rejections, persisting, and finally, receiving an acceptance for publication.
Another young man was typing poems from handwritten copies. He already had at least eight poems typed, with accompanying graphics. He said he wanted to put it all together in a book to give to people who might need help or want to read something inspiring. Due to physical illness, he wasn’t able to start college this fall as planned, and he hasn’t been able to play sports or work like he usually does. But he has been able to cope by writing poetry.
Another young man said he, “had a rough day and just wanted to write,” rather than work on homework. Since he usually earns good grades I said, “Absolutely. That’s understandable if you just want to write sometimes.”
Another young man was writing a summary of a book he had recently finished reading. I asked him what the teacher’s requirements were for the assignment. He said he already finished his homework but since he had nothing else to do he thought he’d write a short essay on the book. He “really liked the book” and “had nothing better to do.”
These activities might not be impressive if we actually required that the students write. But this group of boys, aged 16 to 21, were choosing to read and write rather than spend their time watching TV, playing video games, or sleeping the day away.
Another young man was working on Algebra, a class he had failed more than once before and needed to pass in order to earn his high school degree. When I asked how he did on his last test he showed me his grade: 75%. He and his tutor, Bill, a retired engineer from the Bronx, had been working hard together for a year. I put my hand out for a low five and told him to keep it up. “Yes ma’am!” he said, half-smiling, always understanding that we’re being tough for good reasons.
Four others worked diligently on their homework. I had to urge one of them to take a break in order to tell me how the semester is going. “It’s been hard because my financial aid didn’t come in when I thought it would so I didn’t have any books for the first three weeks.” I was especially concerned because he didn’t pass all his classes the prior semester.
“Have you had any tests?” I asked.
“We already had an Algebra test!” he said in a can-you-believe-this-crap tone.
“How’d you do?” I asked, hoping for at least a passing grade.
“I got a 95 percent on the test,” he said, trying to not smile.
One of the tutors, a screenwriter and native of St. Louis, worked and chatted with the same young man who didn’t seem to have interest in talking to anyone last year. After several months of patience and persistence on the tutor’s part, they were finally able to form a trusting relationship.
I don’t know if I ever imagined such positive results in the Drury House classroom. Of course, the therapists, social workers, and 24-hour staff of Marygrove are there during the 95 percent of the time that YourWords STL is not working with the residents. And the YourWords STL “sample-size” is not yet thousands of youths. But the residents of Marygrove are examples of life getting better, even when one has endured exceptionally challenging circumstances.
A third tutor, a very active retired teacher, made her way to every student in the room as well. She and I checked and double-checked everyone’s work during the 75 minutes of tutoring, although that afternoon, the young men of Marygrove’s transitional housing were manning their own sails.