Guest Blog Post by (Former) Tutor Coodinator, Jennifer Rengachary
“I’m a weightlifter.” I arrived a little early to our first pilot session at our newest location, Lift for Life, so that I could chat with the kids and see their program in action. I’d visited the facility just once before, early in the day before the kids arrived. Within a few moments, a friendly young boy introduced himself and gave me an enthusiastic description of his weightlifting training and competition achievements. Thanks to Lift for Life’s awe-inspiring free sports programming and comprehensive support, “weightlifter” is clearly a key, positive element of this child’s identity.
I’m a weightlifter too. That’s how I came to hear about Lift for Life; several of my gym friends, especially Nancy and Marilee, volunteer here regularly. Even though I don’t compete, I’m lucky to be surrounded by excellent coaches and gym friends who support me and treat my training seriously. Thinking of myself as a weightlifter has transformed my life. I can focus on what I can do rather than how I look. I make healthier choices. I’m largely able to replace damaging, self-defeating thoughts like “I’m not skinny enough” with constructive thoughts like “If I make time to hit the gym today I’m going to get stronger and get closer to my goal.” Being able to deadlift twice my body weight makes it a little easier to throw over societal messages that as a woman, I am fragile or valuable mainly as an ornament.
We naturally assign labels to those around us. It’s unavoidable – we need them as “a type of mental shortcut we rely on to obtain information quickly and effortlessly” or else we would be so overwhelmed by details that we couldn’t function. By the same token, we label ourselves as a way to carve out a sense of self. We can’t just wake up as a blank slate every morning. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into choosing negative and limiting labels. These labels divide us and prevent us from achieving our potential. I think most of us could agree that St. Louis suffers deeply from such divisions. Racist attitudes and stereotypes about people in situations of poverty are hurting our city. Perhaps worst of all, young people sometimes internalize the negative labels that others assign to them.
Can we do anything about this? Can we bring St. Louis together and bridge these divides? Close the opportunity gaps? Help at-risk children replace negative self-labels with positive ones?
At our first Lift for Life session last Wednesday, after an introduction and warm welcome by the kids and staff, Anna got right to work with a fantastic group of girls and young women. In less than an hour, each had produced an original poem and read it out loud or had a friend read it for them, over the din of a basketball game.
I’ve watched Anna do this introductory lesson with three different groups now, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing the transition from “I don’t know if I can write a poem” to “Hey, I just wrote a poem.” Here’s a little sample platter of some lines:
“I am distraught and polite.”
“I am the Capitol. I am surrounding. I am odd reporter. You heard footsteps.”
“I’m not worried about losing this fight. I’m my sister’s keeper.”
“We are encompassed. I do dream.”
I know that Lift for Life and Marygrove think we can do better here in STL. The staff spend all day every day not just providing for their kids’ basic needs but also telling them that they are or can be athletes, good citizens, high-achieving students, working tirelessly to heal wounds inflicted by destructive labels and provide options for healthy self-images.
Impressed with the girls’ work on Wednesday, I tossed out another label on my way out. They laughed, but I hope that they know I meant it too.
“Good night, poets!”