Children are some of the most resilient little stinkers I’ve ever had the distinct joy of working with.
By way of poking around on the internet, being embarrassingly obsessed with/connected to my hometown, and dreaming up ways to avoid working in an office this summer, I scored the opportunity to work as an intern for the Indiana Writers Center through their Building a Rainbow Program. This community-building outreach program amplifies the voices of Indianapolis’ youth through creative writing, and it is a gift to help these children tell their stories and become authors. The Saint Florian Center, a youth leadership development organization founded and led by the Indianapolis Firefighters, organizes the camp where we facilitate these writing sessions. In just a few short weeks, the kids write, we transcribe their work, and then publish their writing in a book.
Yes, a book.
Yes, 6- and 7- and 8- and 9- and 10- and 11- and 12- and 13-year-old Indianapolis kiddos will become published authors before you or I ever will.
Using the term “at risk” to describe these witty, hilarious, smart, and compassionate children is problematic, as the directors of this program have said before. It’s like a formula that society adds up to slap a label on the circumstances that these kids were born into by no fault of their own, sometimes no fault of their parents, just the sometimes-unfortunate and unjust and infuriating nature of this world.
The camp that the Saint Florian Center organizes is reoccurring, so some of these kids come back summer after summer, forming bonds with each other, their leaders, and head firefighter Tony. They know more about each other than I do. They know a different Indianapolis than I do. They have taught me way more in just three days than a semester of class ever could, without even trying.
We write with the kids for longer than you would think that a kid could actually sit still (snacks help) and then we do Author’s Chair, where a few of the kids get to read their work to the group and receive positive feedback (“I like” statements). Today one of the boys, an eight-year-old named Justin, wrote about his parent’s divorce in a heart-wrenchingly perceptive account. He stood in front of 20 of his peers reading about his parents’ divorce–how he cried, the way his pillow was soaked with tears–with a thoughtful and confident demeanor that belonged to a 30-year-old, not a child who’s less than a decade old. I was floored. When he finished reading, a volunteer raised his hand and applauded Justin’s bravery, saying that his parents also got divorced when he was Justin’s age. Suddenly, more kids’ hands shot up, multiple echoing that their parents were also divorced. Echoing Justin’s bravery. Echoing his sadness, his pain, his resilience. I’m 21 years old and it took me over three years–until this very moment–to write publicly about my own parents’ divorce.
Justin’s bravery, his willingness to be vulnerable, to talk about things that are hard and painful yet important, inspired me. I went up to this seemingly shy little boy after he shared his story, knelt down, and looked into the eyes of a little human being who possessed more courage and introspection than a lot of adults I know, myself included. I thanked him for sharing his story, told him that I understood how he felt, reassured him that he had nothing to do with his parent’s decision to end their marriage, that he was so brave.
I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken as the previously wily nature of the room turned serious as more and more kids chimed in that their parents were also divorced. I sat with one of my buddies, Sevan, at the table when she raised her hand and said her parents split up when she was just five years old. Just ten minutes before, she had been goofing around with her playful sassy attitude. It made me realize that writing and sharing stories unites human beings, even 7- and 8-year olds. Sevan is nine years old, while I am 21. She wears black Air Jordans and emanates a natural, energetic rhythm, while I wear white Vans and can barely keep up with the latest dance crazes. Her dad is a rapper, and my dad works in healthcare. We are hilariously different, yet we share a definitive life change that so many of these kids also experienced. Through writing and sharing our stories, we were able to connect and discover similarities over things that matter.
Quick little guide to what matters and what does not:
Matters: shared human experiences
Does not: skin color
At the end of the day, people want to feel heard. People want other people to see through their own lenses, for other people to say, “Hey, I think we have a similar prescription.”
There’s no greater comfort than someone else saying, “Me too!” when we previously thought ourselves to be alone.
Writing helps us try on other people’s glasses, step into other people’s shoes, and hopefully help us to walk a little closer and gentler with others. An 8-year-old named Justin helped me remember that. An 8-year-old reminded me why I write.
An 8-year-old reinforced that this is what I need to do for the rest of my life.