Monday, November 28, 2011

On Meeting Miguel - Twenty Minutes & True Thanksgiving

This morning I awoke, still sluggish from a gluttonous Thanskgiving break that included way too many calories and way too few treadmill runs.  I groaned when the alarm clock went off, and grumbled groggily to myself during the twenty minute commute from my house to the campus on the plains where my day's work awaited me.  To put it simply, I didn't wake up grateful.  I was bitter that a restful and carefree break was over, and that a full school week stretched out before me.  I thought about all the shopping I have to do between now and the next holiday, the decorating, and the actual day job duties that fund the presents I still need to purchase.  Thinking about all of this made me tired, and it was only 7:20 a.m.

I didn't wake up grateful.  But tonight, as I prepare to go to sleep, I am grateful.  In fact, I am more thankful than I was just a few days ago when I celebrated Thanksgiving with a nation full of other thankful turkey-eaters.  


Today, I met Miguel.  Cynical, shy, withdrawn.  Jaded.  Negative.  Defeated.  Everything about Miguel made my brow furrow and my heart break.  The scrawny 5th grader slouched in his seat and retreated behind his over-sized hooded sweatshirt.  Using his body language as a repellent, his eyes cried out for an invisibility cloak.  His posture screamed, "Don't bother.  Leave me alone.  Please."  

Miguel was already on my radar before I entered the classroom.  His concerned teacher asked me to watch him - a red flag in her gradebook, one of many struggling writers in the room.  Assessments show Miguel reading at a "first grade level."  He hadn't turned in a written assignment in a month.  He was prompted multiple times to join the other students on the carpet for the demonstration, where he tapped his foot impatiently, willing the second hand to tick faster, so that he could return to his desk, slump further in his seat, tighten his hood around his head, and busy himself with a toy car quietly while everyone else around him engaged in independent reading or writing.

Instead, today, I forced him to confer with me.  It took 5 minutes of soft coaxing, gentle questioning and hushed tones for him to pull his hood far enough back on his head so that I could hear his one word responses to my questions.  A 10-year-old body encasing a troubled, hardened soul that felt more like that of a 17 or even 47-year-old.  

So, first I talked.  I spoke about how exciting it sounded to write a fictional narrative.  To create a story where characters could do anything and problems could be resolved (or not) based on my decisions.  That, I explained, is what everyone was working on today as writers.  Revising fictional narratives.

"Miguel.  I wonder...when you're not here at school, what do you like to do?" 

"Play video games."  Three words.  The longest response to a question I had posed so far.  

" games.  Hmm...I don't know much about them.  Tell me, which ones are your favorites and why?  When you play them are you a character?"

Slowly, the head lifted.  The gaze met my own.  The hood slipped off the head and onto the back of his shoulders.  Life breathed into the small body and the hands set the toy car down to gesture.  Skeptical at first, but quickly gaining momentum, Miguel told me stories.  Stories of his video game world and the stories of his real world.  Stories about a pet bird who smothered her baby bird to death (accidentally) because she was trapped in a cage that was too small.  Stories about a favorite dog that ran away.  Stories about a house he used to live in but has since "lost" - a casualty of foreclosure.  Stories about his uncle's haunted basement and the fights he and his four siblings engage in when chores are assigned.  And back to more stories of the gadgets, dreams and adventures he enjoys in the video game world. 

Twenty minutes of storytelling.  He talked.  I jotted notes.  And as the writing block drew to a close I simply said, "Wow.  You are one of the most interesting 5th graders I've ever met.  Look at all of the stories you told me."  

A small smile quickly covered by concern.  "I have thousands of stories in my head," he said.  "I just can't write them."  

"I can see that you do have stories to tell.  So tomorrow, we'll write one together?" I suggested.

"You'll be back tomorrow?"

I nodded.

"So I can think of more ideas tonight.  I can play my game and figure out what characters and story I want to tell..." he trailed off.

"Great idea."  

"Video games as writing homework!" he giggled.  A real chuckle that bubbled up and burst from his lips.

So, today I am grateful for twenty minutes with Miguel.  For the opportunity to watch a dark, shadowed figure begin to see himself as a writer with stories worth telling.  Stories that someone wants to hear.  Tomorrow we'll write together and maybe, just maybe, Miguel will begin to see 5th grade as a place worth being visible.  

There are so many Miguels, of various shapes and sizes, who would blossom with twenty minutes just for them on a regular basis.  I've also seen what Miguel might become -- glimpses of his future where he thrives as a writer or becomes a more jaded, more cynical 7th grader, or sophomore, or...?

But tomorrow, I will write with Miguel.  One word, one story at a time.