For the last two weeks, I have spent time in a different world. I was helping soon-to-be high school seniors prepare essays for their college applications. At first it was hard for me to put myself in their shoes. Everyone was a different color than I am. Everyone had experienced discomfort because of that color. Many were from broken homes. Some didn’t know who their father was. But they all wanted to write college applications essays that would make them competitive with their white suburban peers.
These kids came to school on time on hot summer days and wrote for two and a half hours. Every day. Most of them wrote 1000 words for homework every night. They could write “I am stuck” over and over again, but they had to write. They were given prompts to help them think about what to write—write about someone who has influenced you, write about a time you were scared, write to show why a college should accept you.
Everything they wrote was shared with the head teacher, another helper and me on Google Drive. We watched them on our own computers as they wrote and we made comments in real time. We also worked with them one-on-one if they were stuck. In some sessions, they would read successful essays written by earlier graduates and critique them with a partner. They also shared their work in groups of three.
At first they had to be “assigned” to me, but by the end, they were asking for my help. (It didn’t hurt that the main teacher told them Ms. Kugel had served on admissions committees for years.)
On the last day, they had to have two application-ready essays, checked by us and ready to go. They each read their favorite four sentences from one of their essays to the class. I was surprised to find myself holding back tears as I listened.
They made astonishing progress. Sure, we had to help a bit at the end with grammar and editing, but the course was well organized and run, and it showed. Not every essay was as polished as it could be, but these kids worked hard and learned a lot.
I learned more.