For some time, Mondays have been my day to write without distraction or interruption. My practice is to write something every day, even if it’s a note in the margin of a book, a few lines, or a paragraph in longhand. I got into the habit of keeping a journal in a poetry workshop decades ago. It began with an assignment for Lawrence Raab’s poetry class at Bread Loaf Summer Session, 1979. We were to keep our notebooks handy and jot down whatever caught our attention; sights, sounds — a bit of overheard conversation was my favorite — anything that could conceivably serve as material for a poem. I kept at it throughout my 6 week session and I may have written one or two poems I considered worthy of reading in public, that is, to the assembled student body. I still write poetry in spurts, then let the well refill for a while. But journaling stuck.
The latter half of the Bread Loaf notebook, stained with coffee cup rings and ink blots, was an account of the confusion and pain of my collapsing marriage, trying to support my children through the breakup, while trying complete my degree on time.
Nowadays, I use the journal to keep sane in an insane time, to express gratitude for a privileged life that I deserve no more than anyone else, and yes, to document thoughts, feelings and ideas for further development. Blog posts, say, or maybe even poems. But today, inspiration for this post came from the dark side, a startling reminder of how close and interconnected we are, with our often trivial First World ‘problems’ (shopping for eyewear that fits and flatters) to a world where life-shattering violence, most of it from guns, has helped turn one metropolitan hospital into a nationally-recognized triage center.
Connecting the dots: my spouse is a volunteer with a state-wide mentoring program that pairs him with high school students who are designated at risk. Perhaps their families are untraditional in some way — a single parent household typically — coupled with financial need. Many students represent the immigrant community, and are bilingual and multi-cultural. The program’s goal is to help qualifying students escape the cycle of poverty through higher education, and some 24,000 children have been served to date in all 67 counties.
Mentees accepted into the program who graduate high school are awarded two years of paid tuition to any Florida institution of higher learning that accepts them. Obviously, good grades are a must for those who aspire to the more prestigious schools like University of Central Florida or UF Gainesville. For even those who manage just to graduate, there is the fine community college option at no cost to them. These students also get the academic help they need, but the role of volunteer mentors like my spouse is to support and encourage their students to complete their high school education. A sort of motivational coach.
His current student, the second American-born of Haitian descent he has mentored, is a star, both academically and athletically, who already displays a keen interest in and aptitude for business. He maintained the grades for a top-rated school and has already been accepted by the university of his choice. He’s also mature, personable, and it would appear that he has been able to rise above the family and financial challenges of his earlier life.
So today, while I was at my desk pounding the keys as usual, the two met in the lunch period as is their practice. I fully expect my spouse to return ebullient from these regular meetings, eager to bring me up to date on his student with whom he has forged a strong relationship. But I could see immediately his mood was different as soon as he walked in. Turns out, his student would be leaving school early today to visit the family of a neighborhood friend who was gunned down last night. Beyond that detail, he didn’t want to talk about it. What I want to know is, how will this ambitious, smart 18-year-old live with these memories. How will we?