I stopped by the busy apartment complex where most of my students live. Kids chased each other through the grass, and mommas donning brightly colored patterns walked with babies on their hips.
Whether or not I knew them, I waved at them as I slowly bumped over the humps and pot holes of the parking lot. I always do. As I bumped and waved along, I tried to review what little Spanish I know. But I barely made it past hola.
On a mission to speak to a set of Guatemalan parents, I kept driving toward that apartment and trying to remember what came after hola. It didn’t take me long to admit that there was no chance I was going to have a successful conversation in Spanish without help. There was no way I was ready to knock on that door.
And where else could I go but to the front door of a 4th grader?
Making a quick pit stop, I pulled my car around to a different building in the complex. I knocked on the door, and was immediately greeted by two smiling girls that are new to my summer school program. I asked them to tag along to visit another family a couple of buildings down from them. You might call it a moment of humility, even desperation, but the excitement on their faces called it joy as they looked at each other with wide eyes.
“Let’s go ask!” they said, quickly turning and running to their mom. Soon enough they were lacing up their shoes, and heading out to the door to the day’s great adventure: helping Ms. Brianna talk.
The sun beat down as our strides shadowed the pavement beneath us, every stride closer to our mission together. When we finally reached the covered stairs to that Guatemalan family’s apartment, I lagged behind the girls as they took the steps two at a time before me. And finally, we arrived outside the home I had originally come to see.
Doublechecking the address, I began to knock on the door next to the box of mud-caked construction boots. We knocked again. No answer. Another time. And no answer.
In between knocks, the girls talked more. The girls hardly noticed how their speedy, high pitched voices filled the silence in the corridor. They didn’t hear how our knocks echoed past the door into an unmoving room. They didn’t realize how many minutes passed as we waited outside the door. No, they didn’t notice. There were too many other things to talk about. Cartwheels and summer school, movies and Starbucks.
I had to announce the news.
“Well, girls. I don’t think they’re here. We better head back home,” I told them. Their faces dropped when I told them it’d been nearly 5 minutes and the door remained closed. They really had no idea.
“Do you have anyone else we can visit?” they asked, obviously not wanting to go back home. I shook my head no, and we turned around. We retraced our steps back down the stairs toward their building again, still chatting along the way. Lines and cracks on the pavement passed below us as we followed the sidewalk past the homes of their neighbors.
“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked.
“English. I love to write,” one of the girls said. I told her that was amazing and that I liked to write too (which she obviously thought was the coolest thing ever). She went on about the other stories she has written, and what she’s currently working on. She’s young, but already her portfolio is growing.
She talked, and images of my childhood – long bus rides spent gazing out the window, stretching myself across carpeted floor to read, journaling every night – passed through my head. I thought I was the only 4th grader who watched the world around me in pure wonder, and crafted moving lines in my head as it passed. I think I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was the weird one. Maybe this is how all writers are born.
I asked her about her writing and she told me about a poem she’d been working on for 3 months, among other short stories. But that poem, she was working on getting it just right and came back to it often.
“This girl has more discipline than I do. She’s years younger than me, but she’s already figured it out. Writing, as is any good thing worth pursuing, requires days and days of going back to the page, and spilling words even when it’s hard. And she already knows that,” I immediately thought.
“That’s amazing. Keep working on it. I want to read it when you finish,” was all I said.
“Okay! My friend reads it for me. She helps me,” she said, pulling the other girl in close for a sideways hug as we continued down the sidewalk. The quiet one smiled shyly, and I saw so much of myself in her too: the writer with a vision for the world, and the diligence to pen it and the encourager who wants to see people do amazing things, and will help people get there.
We talked on that sidewalk until I had only given myself approximately 3 minutes to get to my next ESL class. It was hard to leave a conversation when I felt like I was learning so much about these people – these young, growing people. And, I was being pumped with inspiration in my own life too.
I gotta get back to the book tonight.
Need to make sure I wake up with my alarm to write in the morning.
I need a friend to read my work too.
Even when it sucks, I need to come back to it.
I can’t give up.
There are infinite beautiful things to share, and it can bring joy to someone.
And all that simply because my chatty 4th grade friend spoke up about her writing. She showed me how to speak of my craft with confidence and joy, and how to arrive to the paper with diligence often. I think this was the day that I believed, in real ways, that kids are capable too. Full of ideas and wonder, dreams and the ability to chase them down. They have voices, and you might be surprised at how life-giving and powerful they can be. We can learn from them.
Fourth graders can write poetry too.