birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Dreaming Their Way Into A Future

I’m writing this from my classroom, which is my day “office,” and it is stocked with endless objects I can comment on. The most prominent bulletin board display on my walls is there year-round, and is titled “Class of 2018 Achieves College Dreams.” Beneath those colorful letters are 16 little posters announcing where my seniors are planning to go to college, and what careers they hope to pursue. They crafted their announcements themselves, with lots of colorful embellishment, on white 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheets.

There’s quite a story behind that display and it starts with 9/11. After the New York terrorist attacks, while I waited in line with hundreds of people to purchase an American flag (remember those days?), I pondered how few Latinos were prominent in national politics. I wondered how my students (ours school’s population is 98 percent Latino) could eventually find themselves in positions of success, power and influence. And I decided that 4-year college educations would need to be the first step for most. I’d noticed that My AP English Literature students—supposedly the top performers, most likely to go to university—seemed tentative during the college application process. It was as though the adults assumed they knew what to do with little assistance, but they really did not.

Long story short, I asked a lot of questions of my seniors to find out what kind of college prep help they needed, then gave myself a crash course in how best qualified seniors could apply to UCs, Cal States and private schools. And so my tiny AP class of students did, with excellent results. I found if I devised systematic, graded mini-assignments to carefully lead them through the process, they felt the support and direction to do what they needed.

Every year since, I’ve had that wall. The senior plans stay up in the year after they graduate, for all my current students to analyze them, see the plans of siblings and friends, and even brag about how they’ll do better when they apply.

This year most of the students, though they have GPAs that qualify them for California public universities and many of them have applied to at least a few, are starting at community colleges. There are many reasons for this—and the primary one is that colleges don’t give scholarships and grants like they used to, even for low-income students. There wouldn’t be any problem with starting at a community college except that statistically students from a school like mine are much more likely to drop out than actually transfer and earn their 4-year degree.

Looking at that wall fills me with a melange of feelings. I realized early on that just teaching students English at a high school didn’t feel enough for me—or for them. Unless they went on to some kind of post-secondary training, I felt like they’d be trapped in a low-paying, limiting job, so I did my utmost to urge them to aim for and apply to college. Over the years, many students have indeed made it through college. I’m ecstatic for them. And I share a small sense of fulfillment for having played a little role in their success. Lately, though, that path of success seems to be eroding for the current students. So many plans they all have for their futures. So many external and internal impediments that can stand in their way. When they are able to overcome their many challenges, I feel a certain joy.

Here is Where I Am

Failure to Thrive