The Reason Why

During my capstone presentation last night, my PowerPoint included a photo that I captioned “December 2014 Transformation keynote in Toledo, Ohio,” that never really got explained in the presentation itself. That was actually something that I had written in and subsequently removed.

I did want to explain a little further what the photo was, and also to explain why I removed the part that I did.

A little background for those who didn’t attend last night’s event. It was the first night of Thesis & Capstone presentations at Rosemont College for the graduate publishing program in which six students from the graduating class presented their final work. My capstone project was a marketing plan and additional materials for Girls in Capes, but my presentation was more of an overview of the work I’ve done leading up to this project over the course of two and a half years.

At one point, around the middle of the presentation, I mentioned that working on the site had given me the opportunity to give presentations and speak with high school and middle school students, the people I was most interested in reaching. The mention was brief, and it had an accompanying slide with this photo:

Dec 6 2014 Women Unbound Transformation students

Some of my friends and readers may remember that in December, I gave a keynote at the anniversary event for Women Unbound in Toledo. This photo was taken afterwards. You can see me more or less in the middle, in the red pants and Teen Titans t-shirt; my brother is the person standing next to me, and, funny enough, he’s actually wearing a Rosemont College t-shirt under the green and black plaid.

The fifteen students in this photograph are students at Toledo Early College High School, my alma mater. August 2015 will mark the tenth anniversary of the school opening: I was a member of the first graduating class.

My time at TECHS means a lot to me now, although at the time I was too distracted by other teenager problems to think of it that way. I was one of the first 19 students in my freshman class to take college courses (I finished Composition I with an A when I was 14), founded the Drama Club, played on our Quiz Bowl team for all four years (captain for the last two), and developed leadership and organization skills that have proven invaluable throughout college and graduate school.

Bear with me for a second, because I’m about to go through some kind of boring facts about TECHS. If you visit the school’s website, you’ll learn that the school is ranked Excellent, has the highest high school performance index in the state of Ohio, and is a nationally-ranked school in U.S. News and World Report.

The website doesn’t mention that during my sophomore year, the first year students at TECHS took the Ohio Graduation Test, our pass rate was phenomenal, beating out what was then the highest-ranked Toledo Public School high school. It doesn’t mention that our ACT scores during my junior year were well above average, that many from the class of ’09 are currently attending or completing graduate school, or that students from TECHS consistently qualify not only for State National History Day, but the NHD competition on the national level. TECHS students have received national-level awards while at the school and have also competed in other national competitions, including Poetry Out Loud.

What makes TECHS so very, very different from other schools where students can and do achieve the same thing is that the students who attend the school aren’t from families that can pay for inset screens for their National History Day projects (as some of the students have seen). They’re not from families that are well-connected and politically powerful in their communities.

The mission of the Early College Initiative is to provide education for students who normally couldn’t attend college —  “students who have not had access to academic preparation needed to meet college readiness standards, students for whom the cost of college is prohibitive, students of color and English language learners an opportunity to prepare for earning a college degree.”

To be frank, the type of students I was surrounded by at TECHS was completely opposite of the students I’m surrounded by now. The energy back then could almost be felt buzzing in the air. Students around me were involved — I remember that a pair of students organized a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina relief with little assistance from teachers. Scrolling through the school’s Facebook page now, I see student-organized awareness walks, a fundraiser for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, charitable collections, and so much more that I can’t begin to list their extent. Students are active not only in school-sponsored activities, but in activities throughout the city and their own smaller communities, and many take the opportunities for leadership and excel.

What makes the students of Toledo Early College stand out is the initiative and heart the students show. But if you look at the photo of the students who came to my event, that’s not what the cast of a teen TV show or a young adult novel looks like.

The students are from poor families. Immigrant families. Some students speak English as their second language. Others are from schools that the state of Ohio considers to be failing — in fact, many of the schools in the TPS district are considered failing.

There are so, so many ways in which the educational system and the media fail students like those at TECHS, but very little fails these kids the way young adult publishing — and book publishing in general — does. When I read young adult books in high school, I laughed at the idea that they reflected real high school experience. Every kid was white, there were no accents or even dialects, and no one had to deal with their utilities being shut off or their only meal for the day coming from the free lunch program.

There are exceptions to this, of course — Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the number one book that comes to mind. I read it as part of my school’s suggested summer reading, and every issue the protagonist addresses had already entered my world by that age, either in my own life or in the lives of students I knew.

The reason I wanted to start Girls in Capes was to advocate for diversity in publishing, and that passion grows stronger every time I meet and talk to kids from TECHS. They’re intelligent; they ask questions and engage in ways even some of my graduate school peers can’t or won’t. They’re incredible teenagers, and so many of them have the drive to achieve incredible things.

And I want to make sure that kids like the ones at TECHS see themselves in the teens they read about, can see that teens who are like them and from similar situations as they are can also achieve success.

When I first wrote my presentation, I wrote and edited and rewrote lines over and over to try to express what I wanted to say. It just wasn’t working. So finally I took out what was there, for sake of brevity. This is what I remember writing yesterday:

“It’s kids like these students I met last December who drive me to do what I do.”

It’s one line.

One sentence.

And even when that was the only sentence in my presentation, I couldn’t say it out lout without bursting into tears.

It is kids like these students who drive me to do the things I do and write the types of things I write. But as I’ve shown in this blog post, it takes me thirteen hundred words to express exactly why.

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