|Me with the "Brittany Girl"|
When I stopped working last year, I made it a goal to work with teenage writers at our local Boys and Girls Club. I contacted them to offer help and was set up to interview with the director of the teen center, Sonia Wilks.
A few times in my life, just before walking into a new situation I've been struck by a fleeting sense that something important, which I didn't ask for, but which I need, is going to happen.
I walked into Boys and Girls with this feeling.
Sonia met with me in her basement office where, through a picture window she could view members as they arrived and got settled. They filed in fresh from the school day, some quiet, some energetic, some reticent. Without much prompting, they fell in with the daily structure: a meeting to gather and go over club events, a homework and recreational period, crafts, projects, play, games, snacks and juice. I was impressed with Sonia's ability to know, with one look, who'd had a bad day.
Three of the members had been nominated for the local Youth of the Year award, said Sonia. My task would be to help each of them develop their "story" to present before a panel in January who would select the winner. That winner would go on to compete regionally, and hopefully, nationally.
I am the mother of one teenager and three former teenagers and still, I found this daunting. Many Boys and Girls Club members consider the club their family, some their rescue. Might the story of life before the club be a hard one to tell? What would I ask? Why would they share? I was nervous. And, if these girls were like many self absorbed teenagers I've met, how would they support, and not undermine each other in order to compete? I prepared my questions and a week later, I met Caitlin, Sammy and Brittany.
With one question, "So. How do each of you feel about telling your story?" the conversation took off. There was no detail they weren't willing to explore to give their story the right authenticity, there was no reluctance to disclose, and if one did pause, another helped her collect her thoughts. If one became teary, the others stopped to group-hug her. Far from an awkward exchange, two hours later, we were still talking.
And I kind of fell in love.
We met weekly to prepare for the final stages of the competition - the essay they would have to write, the speech they would give. At times I met individually with them to talk through a difficult detail. As the awards event drew near, they were an audience for each other, listening, offering useful (if sometimes blunt) critique. A week before the ceremony, they were as close as, well, sisters. When Brittany won the title, Caitlin and Sammy smiled, applauded and whispered to me, "Good. She really deserved it." I realized, she'd won for the three of them.
Brittany and I continued our work together to prepare for the regional competition, reading and editing essays, conducting Q and A sessions. In these, I asked the toughest questions I could craft ("Describe how you benefited from a mistake.") One day, she was preoccupied and irritated, answering quickly, and incompletely.
I put down the questions. "How was school today?" I asked. It was this conversation that we had first, after that.
We put Brittany's story together in thirds: Before the club, when she was picked on each day at school for everything from her weight to the way she asked questions in class, then went home to babysit a young sister and run a household while her mother worked double overtime shifts to support them. At the club, where she found the help she needed to navigate through the rough days and was shown the behaviors that were getting in her way. Finally, what she has become with the daily support of her club "family"; a community force, a leader of peers, a now serious student with college plans, and in her own family, a mentor for her young sister.
In the days before the regional event, Brittany honed her speech, presenting before the Executive Director, then before a small group of members, then the entire membership, and finally before potential donors in the community. Once or twice before the regional event she ran through the speech with just me. Sitting. Standing. Pacing. More Q and A, more critique: "Slow down. If you stumble, smile. Better eye contact. Easy on the woe."
The day before the event, we were given the format for the day's activities: Introduction to the governor, photos with the senators, lunch at the host Club in Manchester and the all-important-deal-breaker interview before a panel of judges. Dinner would follow a three-hour period of free time, speeches would be made, the winner would be announced.
This is a lot of time to fill if you've already eaten lunch and are dressed up and don't want to shop or have a mani/pedi/massage or go to a museum and Brittany wanted to do none of these things.
She wanted to take us to meet her father Stephen, and have a tour of his state-of-the-artworkplace. At 6'5" Stephen is a big guy who speaks and moves gently. Brittany introduced him and we began the tour, Brittany all lit up with look-at-my-dad pride and look-at-me confidence.
Later he joined us for dinner. She presented a flawless speech. Not a phone checker in the crowd. She had us all.
I didn't want to see her face when the winner was announced but I looked at her right after. She was applauding and smiling, nodding as if she approved of the choice, handling the certain disappointment with class and grace. I'd expected to see more sadness just as I'd expected to see more apprehension before the interview and speech. And then I understood.
After soldiering through a process that would have been arduous for an adult, I could see that her biggest thrill was not in how she came across to the judges, or even the thought of winning, but in how she showed the people she loves and trusts the most - her family - what she is made of.
It's been two weeks since I watched her walk away from the event with her big dad. She has already written: "I'm fine, how are you? Do you think we can get together soon and catch up?" When I opened her email (subject: "Hey!")I was struck with the pang of suddenly missing someone very much. Plans are in the making for a coffee date.
I won't forget her. In seeking a way to relate to Brittany who would tell me her life story (over and over again) I couldn't help but contrast our backgrounds and marvel at her resilience. I was never without someone to ask me how my day was as a teenager but struggled to find that "voice within." Brittany, who lacked support for many years, found that voice early. It kept her company, and brought her far.
The tagline for the Boys and Girls Clubs is: "Great Futures Start Here." I was part of this one and the only word for how I feel about that is honored.
I know you're reading this Brittany, and I have three things to say:
Look people in the eye and mean what you say.
Easy on the woe, you're more impressive because of it.
For an experience I didn't ask for, but somehow needed, thank you.