This summer, 12+ welcomed six new talented individuals to the team through the 2014-2015 Fellows Initiative. These Fellows are commissioned to implement workshops, to provide academic assistance, and to serve our students in the PLUS Centers of our partner schools, Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Penn Treaty School. Here, we document their stories.
Aelita graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in Psychology and minors in Religious Studies and Japanese. Aelita is a Fellow of many talents, including salsa dancing and touching her tongue to her nose, but most of all, she works tirelessly to inspire students at KHSA. Read on for anecdotes from Aelita, learning to let students lead her.
“Go left. Left left left.... no my bad I meant right. Right again, one more time. Nah turn around. More. Turn around more.”
Blindfolded with two strips of a ripped up La Salle shirt, Elijah has hit almost every chair in the room and I start to think that this is his personal goal. He is 5’9 with a poofy brown afro tied up in a ponytail, and he is searching for two plastic cups, one with “9th” and one with “10th” grade written on it with a sharpie; he’s relying on his classmate Jeffrey to get him there.
“Elijah reach up. REACH UP” Jeffrey is frantic, and Elijah quickly reaches his arms straight into the air. The ceiling is more than 5 feet above his outstretched arms, but still he waves them in the air, expecting, presumably, to hit a dangling cup at any moment.
“Elijah, remember that I’m 5’1 and that your arms are very far from the ceiling,” I tell him. “You’re probably not going to find a cup hanging from a string straight above you.”
“Oh I got you miss,” he says, seconds before he takes a step to the right and again (at Jeffrey’s command) “reaches up”, hands shooting towards the ceiling.
For his second cup, Jeffrey does significantly less shouting (in response to more polished gestures and more practice) and Elijah hits only half the amount of chairs. At the end of it he tells me that I have to go next.
“I’m gonna guide you,” he tells me.
Elijah ties two separate strips of T-shirt over my eyes, and a third just to be on the safe side. He guides me into the middle of the PLUS Center and spins me around a few times.
“You got this, Miss,” he whispers before stepping back.
It is black, and I hear everything: side chatter and laughter and three different voices tell me to go three separate ways (they have all decided to take an active part in this one). I listen for Elijah ’s voice.
“Miss, turn left. Go straight.” I walk slowly, because I am anxious and fear hurting myself in even the smallest ways. “Stop,” he tells me right before I knock into a shin-high IKEA table.
“Miss, turn right. Walk three steps.”
My third step is into a student.
"Seven steps. Right. Turn around. Turn around. Wait... one more time."
One wall smash and one collision into a student later and I am holding the 11th grade cup, hearing nothing but him telling me that I did good. And I could not have been more proud.
We ask our students to close their eyes and walk; “don’t worry, I’ll guide you,” we’ll tell them. We host workshops where they play our games and listen to our speeches, where we tell them that there is no such thing as smart or dumb, that college is important, trust me, but seldom are we, as adults and as individuals, willing to follow in the same manner. We listen and give advice and affirmation but we do not close our eyes and let them tell us. Our eyes are always open. But we need to let them lead. We need to let them give and teach and run us into walls sometimes because how better to show someone you believe in them than to let them guide you while your eyes are shut tight.
If you close your eyes, even a little, this is what you might learn.
ON HACHI AND LOYALTY
Greg is sitting opposite me in his grey Kensington shirt, buttons open and white undershirt peeking out. He's "airing off." We have just talked about friendship, and what some of the important characteristics are.
I think the most important thing you can be to a friend is loyal. Because if you’re loyal you’re always there for somebody and not everybody does that.” He tells me, crossing tan arms in front of him.
“Are there exceptions for that? Or do you have to be loyal no matter what?”
“I think it’s important. Like you ever see the movie, something with an H with a dog in it. He’s like always waiting for his owner.”
“Yeah I think I've heard of that”
“Yeah well like that movie, I saw it like 2 times, and it really made me cry miss. He just waits there, and people don’t be doin’ that for you. So I always try to be really loyal like that.” He says.
“And if a relationship is a really terrible one, do you remain loyal? If they’re hurting you really badly do you stay?” I ask.
Greg picks at the black stubble on his chin and smiles. “You’re right. You can’t be dealing with all of that stuff. But I think being loyal means you stay and you help them from far away. You don’t have to be right there but they need someone too. You know?”
ON JEFFREY'S STOOP SUMMER
Jeffrey is a senior who has a pair of headphones permanently secured around his neck.
Me: (in the first week of school) Jeff, what did you do this past summer?
Jeff: Nothin, I was just sitting on my stoop.
Me: That’s cool. Did you learn anything in your summer of stooping?
Jeff: Yeah, I learned a lot. I learned that you shouldn’t leave your juice out. It gets hot. And I also learned that you have to eat the ice cream quick or it turns into a milkshake.
ON DAVE AND BUSTER'S AND BETTING
At 7:30 every morning I get a visit from three sophomores. From one I get a “good morning Miss Aelita” and a handshake, from another I get a hug, and from the third I get a story or lesson. This is one of the stories, and it comes from an sophomore MMA fighter and TGIF enthusiast (the restaurant).
“Miss, you know my favorite place to watch UFC? It’s Dave and Buster's cuz people there they know how to keep quiet, at home people stay talkin’ even when the commercials end, but in Dave and Buster's they know wassup AND I can eat food WHILE watching the game I can do that at home but it’s not the same AND at Dave and Buster's people even be takin’ bets so Dave and Busters has everythin' goin on and so I just like it there better miss”
As it’s 7:32am and Phil has just talked at me, hand gestures and all, for two minutes straight...without breathing; I give him a look of something resembling bewilderment.
“So Miss….let’s say we’re at my house and we’re watching UFC and you say this person’s gonna win and I say this other person's gonna win and…”
“Phil, are you explaining betting to me?”
“Yeah Miss. So anyway we say different things and then we bet money to see who’s right."
“Phil, I know what betting is. You don’t have to explain it to me.”
“Really miss cuz you looked mad confused.”
“Okay. Well thanks then.”
I could give you a story for every student. Some about water-logged card decks found on the street and some about abandonment and some about what it means to be lonely, and if there was enough time or space I would. I’d tell you about the thank you bags of chips and my mixed emotions when a student tells me I can be their sidekick “plastic bag girl” (where does that even come from?) I’d tell you about Team Fire Chopsticks and how every day Zach comes in to say hi to ‘Miss 12+’ and ask for a piece of candy. I’ll share all of their little bits of knowledge and advice.
I want to write stories for all of our students but I don’t have the time or the space or even the words. There is no placing them within the confines of an 8 x 11 page, no describing their half smiles after they tell me that: “Nah Miss, I don’t smile.” There is no painting the look of satisfaction when they prove you wrong, or the concern when you tell them that you are not well. I wish I could tell you exactly who these students are, but I am skimming an ocean.
So I hope you get to meet them. I hope they sit next to you while you edit their resume and that they laugh when you spell “college” as “collage.” I hope they come in every day looking for you, and when you’re not there that they leave because you are the most important person to them in that moment, the only person. I hope that you close your eyes and you let them show you something.
In conclusion: watch UFC at Dave and Buster's and refrigerate your juice.