Belonging (or not belonging) is a theme I deal with frequently in my writing, including my current project, a novel depicting the life lessons a Mexican-American girl learns in kindergarten through high school. The project is supported by artist grants from two local organizations (Thank you, 4Culture and Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs), which led me to Proyecto Saber.

Proyecto Saber provides academic support for Latino students. Offered as an elective at two of Seattle’s thirteen high schools, its purpose is to motivate students and help them graduate. Earlier this fall, I spent three days in the classroom at Ballard High School in northwest Seattle, reading and discussing fiction with Proyecto students and preparing them to their write their own pieces. Connecting with Proyecto was part of the community involvement aspect of my grant awards.

Because of the limited time I had in the classroom and the limited time the students would have to write, our focus on flash fiction allowed us to read and talk about conflict, action and resolution using stories of just a few paragraphs as models. I chose examples from Sudden Fiction Latino. We also read “Carpathia” by Jesse Lee Kercheval and “November” by Ursula Hegi, two favorites of mine.

The students were respectful and responsive. Though some were stymied at first about what to write about, most eventually did complete the assignment. Teacher John Hernandez and I agreed that students more comfortable writing non-fiction could do so.

As someone working on a novel about how a Mexican-American girl learns to view herself, the world around her and her place in it, I was interested in the stories these students had to tell. Here are some of the things they wrote about:

  • A father detained by immigration and separated from his family
  • A best friend shot and killed by gang members
  • The effect of a mother’s disregard of her child’s attachment to a toy
  • Losing a friend whose path has veered to drugs and crime
  • An unexpected moment of triumph in a football game
  • A bullied kid taking revenge
  • A family moving forward after a house fire and a father’s disappearance

Several stories ended with the character’s death. In many, there was a lesson learned. The students understood consequence and character transformation in story.

One student wrote a non-fiction piece titled “A Place I Don’t Belong” about feeling out of place in an Advanced Placement class as the only Latina in the class and the only one with an accent. It was a well-written and well-organized work that proved she did in fact belong.

One of the purposes, I think, of Proyecto Saber is to provide a place where students have a sense of belonging. But is also serves to instill that sense of belonging outside of Proyecto, which is why we organized a reading at a local bookstore (Thanks to Theo and Couth Buzzard Books) where students could read their work out in the community.

The students stepped up to the microphone and read the words they’d written. If they were nervous, it didn’t show. They were composed and spoke clearly, declaring through their stories that they belonged.

I only spent three days with these students and barely glimpsed their lives. Whether their stories of immigration detention, isolation, bullying, and a sense of not belonging are fiction or non-fiction, they say something about what’s on the minds of these young people.

I wish them well. I offer my deepest respect to Proyecto Saber teacher John Hernandez and instructional assistant Debbie Spiegelman who clearly are committed to these students and their future. A 2003 Seattle Times article describing the program’s chronic vulnerability to budget cuts summarized the importance of Proyecto Saber—an importance no less apt today.

“Latino students credit the program with giving them a sense of culture and keeping them engaged in school. These are not minor things.”

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