I hustled into the downtown Starbucks and hunkered down in a plush leather seat in the corner – between two windows, back to the wall, an abundance of space between me and the nearest customers. For all these reasons, and because of superstition based on past performances, this was my lucky writing chair – and today I was going to need all the luck I could get.
It had been one of those weeks when the writing came anything but easily. I was working on a book project about my community service road trip, and right now that means writing about my visit to New Orleans. Normally New Orleans is a pleasant enough direction to let my mind wander, but now I’m struggling to shape all the good times into a coherent series of chapters, built on interviews only partly transcribed and facts only partly gathered.
Given that problem, it was understandable that my Thursday off-campus was not going to yield the explosion of memorable prose I’d been praying for this week. Instead, a review of what I’d written revealed that my entire plan for New Orleans was wrong – what I thought was one chapter needed to be two. Worse, one reason it needed to split in two was that one of the agencies merited more research, including more interviews that, of course, I’d then have to transcribe. An hour into my would-be writing session, I accepted this. I sent an email to one agency – the New Orleans Musicians Clinic – asking for things as large as setting up an interview and as small as the architectural style of the agency’s offices.
So fine. At leaset now I could move on to my half-chapter about Common Ground Relief, set up in the Lower Ninth Ward so severely flooded by Hurricane Katrina. A description of the environmentally correct – and festively colorful – homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation should be easy enough to turn around. Only a quick bit of on-line research quickly revealed a New Republic article about criticism of Pitt’s noble effort. (Sigh.) The clock told me I was running out of time. My writing self would have to rush to my 3 p.m. Thursday volunteer gig without the satisfaction of closure.
At least I could take a break from the writing.
Again, I was wrong. When I walked into the basement classroom of African Community Education, it wasn’t long before I was pulled – with gratitude – from a student’s high school algebra assignment to two people working on my writing –which, until my ill-fated trip to Starbucks, I considered my forte. In a new twist, I was tutoring two students at the same time, about two very different assignments. The young writers sat opposite me; I moved back and forth between them, feeling like the pedagogical version of a bartender. (“Ma’am, can I freshen that essay for you?”) The multi-tasking reminded me of my earlier frustration at the coffee shop; what could possibly come of all this hopping back and forth.
Only I felt more locked in to their respective missions than my own. Maybe it was the knowledge of what these students – African refugees who endured difficult transitions to America after even harder lives in conflict-ridden homes abroad – had gone through just to be here today, gamely seeking to climb another rung in a ladder I’d never even had to negotiate. Or maybe it was my thwarted desire to complete my own chapter earlier. I was urgently concerned that someone finish something today – and, given what was at stake, I’d rather it be them. I felt we were nearing the goal – only then the girl, a senior from the Central Republic of Africa, threw me for a loop. She was two paragraphs from completing – only now she was doubting the validity of her assertion two paragraphs earlier. She shared with me her new insight, and I had to agree, but I feared for her, just the same – this was looking to be her version of my Brad Pitt boondoggle. I wanted to spare her – who only began learning English four years ago – my rhetorical lostness.
But listening to her, I had to agree she was right – and I could only cheer her on as she erased half of the second paragraph and rewrote it in her careful pencil, a handwriting I could never duplicate at any age. She moved on from there, consulting me on every sentence, but every idea her own. She finished only a half hour after her male counterpart, who only had to write one paragraph. That left time for her to tell me about her home country, her schooling, and her plans for community college. She and walked out at the same time, hung with the kids waiting out front for their rides home after a long day of schooling.
My earlier frustration seemed to have dissolved into the cool misty night air. Sure, my work will be harder to complete – and yet my professional path is so much easier than the series of obstacles these kids have hurdled. One possible conclusion of such volunteer moments is the familiar one we may experience when we look in a bathroom mirror and say, “Hey, stop yer whining.’”
But that has a negative spin, as if I’m supposed to pity the lot of these kids compared to my own. It doesn’t ring true to what I really felt – inspiration. How, after all, could we not be inspired by a group of motivated immigrant kids, earnestly writing their way sentence by sentence into a new language in a new country? The next time I struggle to push through to the end of a chapter, I’ll remind myself of these young writers – making their own luck, regardless of the chair life gives them.