I had the privilege of talking to students in the AVID Program at Boyd High School in McKinney, Texas, last week. AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The program is “a college readiness program that targets students with the potential of attending college who are not enrolled in advanced classes.” It helps prepare students for college, and I’d add it helps prepare them for life.
One of the teachers in the program, Alice Ellenburg, proudly showed the group I was with a wall in the hallway that displayed enlarged copies of her students’ college acceptance letters. At her encouragement, students told us where they were going to college, or where they’d applied, and what they were going to study, or what they hoped to study. These students shook our hands, maintained eye contact, and were pleasant conversationalists. They were poised, articulate, and, as I was about to find out, extremely smart.
During the question and answer session after my opening remarks, students enthusiastically asked questions that had to do with my writing process and my advice for how to meet the challenges ahead of them. I found these students to already be thinking about things in sophisticated ways that I didn’t even know enough to consider when I was their age. “How do you keep going through the hard times?” one student asked. Wow. Already, these students understood that there would be obstacles in their paths, and not just ones that were thrown before them by forces they couldn’t control, but also ones of their own making. “Keep putting one foot in front of the other one,” I said, sharing my mother’s advice to me when I was young. I wish I’d added, “Trust in your talents. Know who you are. Keep doing what you love. Keep doing the good work.”
Another student wanted to know what to do about the fact that something you wrote never really measured up to the vision you had for it when the idea first came to you. “You’re not going to like my answer,” I said. Then I told her such would always be the case, particularly when first starting out, but equally true no matter how long one has written. I know you’ve all heard me say this before. Writing is an lifelong apprenticeship. I told the student to read a lot and to read the way a writer must, with an eye toward how something got made. To think, in other words, about the artistic choice the writer made and the effects they created. Then keep writing. Keep writing without putting too much pressure on yourself to be good. Write because you love to write. Little by little, you’ll get better. Soon, the thing you write will please you.
I want to say a word about the people who teach in this program. They’re doing good and important work. These students are the future of this country, and I, for one, was overwhelmed with the hope that they gave me for the years ahead. Teachers like Alice Ellenburg are clearly invested in the lives of their students. They’re preparing them well.
I told the story of how I dropped out of college and worked for a year and a half in a tire repairs manufacturing plant and how it only took a few weeks of that work to convince me I had to save money and find a way to return to school. When I finally did, I was in a hallway waiting for a class, and one of the teachers I’d had when I previously attended came out into the hallway, saw me, and said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you back.” Her name was Lucy Gabbard, and because she believed in me, I believed in myself. All it takes sometimes is for one teacher to invest in a student’s future to make all the difference in that student’s life. Lucy Gabbard was that teacher for me, and I can tell, without a doubt, that Alice Ellenburg, is the difference maker for a number of these high school students who, with her help, have taken control of their own destinies and will have a better chance for success because a teacher took the time to care.