Much is made of late about political and social divisions in American life - old/young, rich/poor, red/blue, etc. The long standing rural/urban categorization is real, too and may go back even further in our history. A recent experience inside a Washington public high school made me see how such labels can be subdivided, even turned upside down. This happened to me as a volunteer in a program called Writers In Schools run by the prestigious PEN/Faulkner organization (a nonprofit) associated with Washington, D.C.'s Folger Library. The program invites published authors to read and speak to small groups, at the invitation of individual school authorities. It also occasionally offers help to students writing the personal application essay usually required for entrance into another, possibly more highly rated public school, or for college. Students willing to enter their essay in a competition sponsored by the PEN chapter might find themselves winner of a $100 for the one judged best among the submissions.
Locals know how real is the split among the District's Wards in terms of income and educational opportunities. Overall, one half of all public school children in DC are said to be 'at risk,' requiring help of some kind (food stamps, housing, etc), 17 percent of whom are 'special needs' children having either physical or mental (emotional?) handicaps. Going into a class of 11th grade essay writers in newly established high school in the area across the Anacostia River (Wards 7 and 8), I had little notion of some of the very real everyday barriers the students face in light of those dismaying statistics. Barriers that are individual, sometimes familial.
For an exercise intended to get students to express feelings on paper, they were asked to write out nonstop in longhand or by computer about a conflict in their lives and how they had or were trying to overcome it. The idea being, of course, a way for admissions counselors to know a student's character in a positive light. How much gumption and determination they had. Their degree of maturity.
Anacostia is full of rolling hills and an abundance of trees - topography often associated more with suburbs and small towns than with a bustling urban milieu that downtown Washington represents. Restaurants, groceries, stores of any kind are far-flung. Streets and sidewalks generally are devoid of people in the middle of the day. Any notion of 'community' is difficult for a stranger to comprehend. I had to stretch my own imagination to understand how a young woman could write - and then explain to me in a private session - how her parents simply do not understand digital communication - can not see why she isn't able to write school papers in longhand the way "they always did." How the parents will have nothing to do with computers, and, further, that she had no concept of anyone in their 60s (her definition) ever using a computer.
"Do people over 65 use computers?" she asked me.
This is within a few miles of one of the most highly computerized governments in the world.
She said she had had a summer job to earn money to buy herself a modest computer and now struggled in the essay how to tell about the life she is living inside her home as student that consumed most of her days - one whose expectations and requirements were beyond what her family would understand. She had a challenge: to show her interests and initiative without undermining either her respect for or relationships with her parents. The split, and possible shame, was keeping her from writing what could be one of the best and most important essays of her life. Might it help her get into the college of her choice, set her on a path of her own?
If she seemed 'naive' about such matters, I could be considered equally innocent. Why would I assume she had contact with older people outside her own milieu? Is it possible, I wondered, that she never had been associated with such people and perhaps even had not ventured often, if ever, into the city itself? There was no fundamental religious issue behind her parents' viewpoint, she said; it was simply their own disapproval of a fast-changing world - the one that would undoubtedly require their daughter to embrace one way or another.