I was shocked to learn that the majority of students in OKC Public Schools receive food assistance, meaning they live below the poverty level. I asked a yoga friend, who teaches English Language Development at Northwest Classen, my old high school, if it was that bad. “It’s probably closer to 90%,” she said. “Our students rarely have guest speakers. Why don’t you teach a class?”
I did not hesitate. After reviewing their English textbook I outlined a six-week program entitled Writing for Results and entered a classroom filled with polite yet skeptical 17-year-olds mostly from Central America. Their teacher introduced me then I asked the students to introduce themselves. They laughed nervously. “Come on,” I said. “Don’t be shy. Stand up and tell us who you are, ‘I am…’” After they said their name we acknowledged with applause. “That name was given to you by your parents. What you make of it in this life is up to you.”
“How many of you have jobs?” Sixteen raised their hands. “In a classroom like this a teacher inspired me to become a writer. After school I went to work, too.” A skeptic challenged, “Where did you work?” I smiled. “At the golf course doing whatever needed to be done and that included cleaning toilets and taking out trash. I learned to make a living cleaning up messes.” I presented a brief history of writing and why freedom of expression is the foundation of civilization. I gave each student a college-ruled composition book.
“This journal is yours to record your thoughts,” I said. “It is yours. Only share when you choose.” I invited them to take a deep breath, hold it at the top with a long release. They laughed. “Yes, at first it feels odd, but this exercise brings you into the moment where we live. In life our most fundamental negative thought is, ‘I am not good enough’ – and that is one monstrous lie. Let that go.” I asked them to take another deep breath, hold it at the top with a long release. “In this life anything is possible.” We turned down the lights and the teacher played 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal’s America’s Got Talent audition video with her original song, “I Don’t Know My Name.” Afterward their faces reflected a communal transcendent moment.
“How does Grace’s song make you feel? Consider it is in moments like this that we are most human.” We took another long deep collective breath. I asked them to close their eyes. “Imagine you are looking in the mirror. Take a long look. Now, open your journal and make a list of qualities you admire about your self.” There were puzzled looks. “Qualities like you go to school, study and work hard, you are a loyal friend.” They nodded and wrote for several minutes. “Update your list when you think of more good things,” I said. “You may share your list next week if you want.”
A bell rang. The students thanked me and packed their book bags. Several came forward and shook my hand. That was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life. And more would follow.