Authored by: Shannon Garnder, AmeriCorps members at Highland Park Elementary School
Celia* can be found in room 205 with her head buried in a graphic novel, probably Diary of a Wimpy Kid. She will be wearing the same green Minecraft sweatshirt hanging off her shoulder ever-so-slightly. Or, you might also find her scribbling cartoon characters on the side of her paper while the rest of the class is taking an assessment.
Many of our conversations have consisted of, “Celia, who is that character you drew on your paper?”
“I don’t know…” she would mumble beneath her breath, never making eye contact, continuing to draw. At first, I had a difficult time forming a relationship with her because she would barely speak a word to me. I didn’t really know what to speak to her about, aside from cartoons characters.
My partner teacher had shared with me that last year, Celia’s self-confidence was nearly non-existent, especially in academics. On her papers and exams, she would write in big block letters, “I hate this” or “I suck at life.” She would write “no one” or “anonymous” at the top of her paper instead of her name, making an effort to disguise her handwriting.
So when I found out that she was a student on my focus lists in both math and reading back in September, which meant eighty minutes together per week, you could say I was excited. From that moment, I made it my mission to be more than just her tutor. I wanted to be her cheerleader, her friend, her little bit of hope on a rainy Seattle morning. I wanted to be the person to tell her that she is smart and brave and capable until I was red in the face. I wanted her to see her own limitless potential.
Every day, I aim to remind Celia that she is smart and capable. We’ve been working on cutting “can’t” out of her vocabulary. During most of our sessions together, she still doodles on the side of her paper as I discuss our lesson topic. Much of the time, I just let her keep doing her thing. I compliment her drawings and encourage her to follow her passions. My philosophy is that sometimes, doing what you love is more essential than anything, and I want her to know that.
As autumn welcomed winter, the more dedicated I became to my relationship with Celia. One Monday in early January, I came into work feeling really groggy, just trying to start the week strong. I was placing my coffee Thermos on my messy desk in the back of the classroom and draping my wet, “All-Weather” City Year jacket over my chair when I noticed a little slip of paper folded neatly upon my piles of crumpled papers.
It was addressed:
To: Miss Shannon
I opened it to find a penciled cartoon character. She had pale skin, red hair, big blue eyes and brown-framed glasses. She wore a big smile on her face and even a red jacket. Her head was bigger than her body, but I still recognized her. She was me!! I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face (in real life). I immediately knew the drawing was from Celia.
Knowing she wanted to remain Anonymous, I didn’t say a word about it that day, and I’ve kept my lips zipped ever since. Whether she knew it or not, her simple drawing (which she probably whipped up during a tutoring session) powered me through the rest of the week.
Since January, my love for Celia has only grown stronger. She has made notable progress in both math and reading, and I’ve finally seen her pick out a book from the library that is not a graphic novel! She writes “Celia” at the top of her paper now, and she even crafts academic responses in her notebooks too! Yes, she still scribbles cartoon characters up and down the sides of her papers, but I think I’ll let her keep doing that. That way, someday I can buy her children’s book when she becomes a famous illustrator.
My mission remains for her to be proud of herself as she becomes an unstoppable 6th grader next year. My hope for her is that her future teachers continue to see her the way I do: passionate, talented, creative, and intelligent.
My wish is for Celia to look in the mirror and see someone staring back at her. May she accept and love that special person in the mirror, knowing full well that she is enough (and then some) for this world, exactly as she is.
*Name changed to protect student's privacy