The key to a good story web is to give the yarn plenty of slack when you toss it across the circle. Holding on to your end, unspool it a bit before you throw it to Quincy, or Josanna, or Angel, or any of the 5th graders at Adams Middle School with hands stretched above their heads, anxious to share their insights on the book we’ve been discussing, Joyce Hansen’s “The Gift Giver.”
“Well,” started Jonathan upon catching the ball of yarn. “I connect with what Ms. Jen said, about the part in the book when Doris helps Russell, because I think it’s important to help people. Like when I play soccer and I pass the ball, that’s helping my team.”
Jonathan pinched his place on the yarn before tossing the yarn to a new student, creating another corner in the web of red string that was slowly crossing the space on the floor between us – five volunteers and twice as many students from the Higher Achievement Program’s summer book club.
This wasn’t my first time volunteering with Higher Achievement, a year-round academic enrichment program in Washington D.C. (and now Baltimore) that mentors academically motivated middle school students from underserved communities. These kids are excited about learning. Three minutes into conversation with Walter, an energetic ten-year-old, I discovered that he wants to study aeronautical engineering at MIT and plans to invent an aircraft that runs entirely on solar energy. I don’t tell him that only nine percent of D.C.’s public school students manage to graduate from college. I’m hopeful that he’ll be one of them.
As a former D.C. public school teacher, volunteering with students is personal, a responsibility, a way of acting on issues that matter to me even though I no longer work in a classroom. Teaching high school, I saw firsthand the positive impact on students who were fortunate enough to have a mentor, or who participated in programs, such as Higher Achievement, that engage students outside of the classroom, helping them apply for scholarships or providing an extra hour or two of academic attention. I look back at my students, and think about the ones went to college, or dropped out, or simply disappeared. Perhaps the time that someone was willing to give to a student is the difference between that 91 percent and the nine.
Of course it’s not that simple. I have no illusions that my company this morning is going to dramatically alter the academic futures of these students. But the more frequently I volunteer, the more I believe that the act of donating time and attention, no matter how small, is significant. It builds connections between communities and generations, and it sets an example for those who serve and those who are served. These particular students might not remember me, but they will certainly remember what they learn through Higher Achievement, and if I can support their efforts, that’s time well spent.
By the end of the story web, the middle of the circle is a mass of red lines. “It looks like a star!” one girl whispers to another. The group leader asks the students how our web connects to the program’s theme of social justice.
“It’s like solidarity?” one student ventures.
“Why?” asks the leader.
“Because we talked about our ideas about the book, and we helped make a web that shows what we had in common. And solidarity means supporting each other and having respect. And helping.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.