The Bad Project

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Chapter 7. Mentoring Begins /Marianne

“Hope is everything,” Crystal read aloud from the sign above the door.

“That could be scary,” Marianne said, “if these girls have nothing but hope, if we let them down...” They walked around the room and then sat down at one of the long tables. Others arrived and joined them at the tables. Marianne thought how much writing meant to her in high school. She didn’t let her mind go to that shock at the literary magazine, but she recalled with pleasure the positive comments of several of her English teachers. She wanted to give that inspiration to the girl she’d be matched with today.

Crystal said, “C’mon, we won’t disappoint them. All we have to do is read the email about the week’s plan and meet our mentees at the library for an hour. That’s not much, I know we can do it.”

“But we’re supposed to inspire them,” Marianne said as they sat down at a long table. “I’m not sure I can do that.”

A tall African American woman in a power suit walked in, shook hands with several of the other prospective mentors, and walked towards the podium. About half the seats were occupied. She tested the microphone, then said, “Welcome, mentors. I am Chelsee Branch, a corporate lawyer and, in my free time, the founder and president of the PenGirls program. This is an important program to help girls with their self esteem. Over 80% of these high school girls we work with have gone to college in the six years since we started this group. Their cohort at the schools where they go, well only 10% of them go to college. Never doubt that your work is valuable and we appreciate the time you commit. As you know, we expect each mentor to spend an hour a week preparing and an hour each week writing with your mentee. Once a month, you’ll meet and write here in a big workshop with inspiring women speakers. At those workshops, you will work with your mentee but if she can’t come, you have a chance to mentor a different girl from the one you usually work with. Any questions?”

No one raised her hand. Each mentor had been briefed in advance about her part in the PenGirls program at a small workshop where it was easier to ask questions. Branch continued, “In a few minutes, your mentees will arrive. Each of you has already been matched with a mentee, and some of my assistants are now moving through the tables, giving out your nametags. Each one has your own name in large letters at the top and in smaller letters, the name of your mentee. Each mentee already has a similar nametag, except with her own in large letters on top and yours beneath. I’m going to ask you now if you’ll move to tables according to the first letter in your last name. The assistants have put an alphabet block label on a stand on each table. The A-C table is back there on the left, and it runs through the auditorium like this,” she said, swishing her pointer finger back and forth like a snake. The mentors got up and moved to the appropriate tables. Crystal and Marianne had chosen the W table by accident, so they stayed there.

There was a rattle and bang at the door and a stream of high school girls poured into the auditorium. A short, thin Asian girl with a ponytail walked up to Marianne and said very softly, “I’m your match, I guess.”

“Hi Katie, I’m Marianne,” she said, putting out her hand. Katie just touched it without saying anything. “And this is my college roommate, Crystal.” Again, Katie just touched Crystal’s hand. Marianne and Katie sat down next to each other and watched to see what Crystal’s mentee would be like.

A tall, heavyset black girl with her hair in long jerry curls approached Crystal and said, “You Crystal?”

“Yes, you Toni?” she said.

“Yep. This is gonna be fun. You look like relaxed, huh? I was afraid you would be uptight, you know, like my teachers.” Toni laughed and Crystal laughed with her. The assistants passed out lined paper to everybody. On the screen was projected, “What is the first thing you can remember?” Branch said, “We want to start you off with a little get-to-know-you exercise. Please write for five minutes on this question. Then we’ll read our responses to each other in our pairs.”

Katie and Marianne smiled at each other and began to write. Toni looked at Crystal in dismay. “Do I have to be honest?” Toni asked.

“Up to a point,” Crystal said. “But if the first thing is something you don’t like to think about, you can write about something else from back then. As long as it really happened.”

Toni still hesitated. “The first thing I remember is my sister answering the door in the nude. We didn’t wear clothes much because of the heat, and I remember the rude way the mailman laughed at her. I don’t want to write that.”

“Don’t. Write about something else that happened to you as a kid, something you’re comfortable with having other people know about,” Crystal told her. The two of them began to write, hesitating at times, but writing through most of the five minutes.

“Please exchange papers with your mentor/mentee now and read silently,” Branch said. Rustling and then silence filled the room. Marianne looked up at Katie and whispered, “I love your poetic language.” Katie’s eyes brightened and for the first time, she didn’t look so scared.

Toni said softly, “My grandma was like this too, such a caring person. But my Dad didn’t like her.”

Crystal smiled at her and said, “I see yours is about how you didn’t like eggs. I hated soft boiled eggs when I was a kid too. We used to call them squeezy eggs.” Toni laughed out loud, but put her hand over her mouth and got quiet again. Marianne wished Crystal and Toni would be quieter, but she also wanted to know what they were writing and thinking, so she didn’t say anything. She told herself writers had to be busybodies.

Soft talk broke out everywhere and Branch let it happen for a few minutes, then walked back to the podium. “I need a volunteer girl to read first,” she said.

“Go on, Toni, yours is great,” Crystal said. Toni raised her hand, and Branch picked her. She stood up in her place and read her piece about sitting in a high chair next to the sink and pouring her soft boiled egg into the sink, then watching the beautiful patterns the congealing yellow egg made on the white ceramic surface. Then her mom yelled at her because the egg was precious and she wanted her to eat it. But it would never taste as good as it looked in the sink, Toni said. Everyone applauded. She looked embarrassed, ducked her head in thanks, and sat back down.

She whispered to Crystal, “No one ever clapped for me before.”

Other girls and mentors read their selections. Katie didn’t volunteer. Marianne felt that she was so shy she might hate to read in public. She didn’t push her. The group went through three more writing exercises. The final one was to pick an object from a bag passed by the volunteer helpers, and to write about what it reminded you about in your own life.

Katie got a chapstick and Marianne got a mirror. Marianne wrote for ten minutes about how she hated the way she looked Chinese, not blonde and cute like the girls on TV, when she was growing up. How she had not wanted to be Chinese, had thought she was a real American and wanted to be only that. Katie wrote quickly through the whole time, and seemed to have a hard time stopping when the time was up. Branch asked them to read aloud to each other. Katie listened to Marianne’s piece with her head bowed.

When it was her turn, she said, “You won’t like mine. It doesn’t go with what you wrote.” Marianne said she had enjoyed all of the other pieces Katie had written and she was sure she would like this one too.

Katie looked at her doubtfully. Then she read, in an even softer voice than before, “I belong to China. I look at chapstick and I think about NanChang, where my mother and father lived when they were small. I went there last summer. I can’t speak Chinese well but I learned to talk with them a little. The green everywhere, and even by the railroad, by the highway, these people were growing food, not like the dry desert ground here in LA. People stay outside a lot more than here in the USA. I guess that makes lips more chapped. I took chapstick for my grandmother and grandfather. They showed it to me every morning, then put it on.

“I went with them while they walked around tending their plants, and I saw them put it on two, three times each day, each time smiling at me. I love the simple enjoyment of their lives. Sometimes they pick the artemsia in the fields, the wild places. Then we have it for dinner. They have six, seven vegetables, most I don’t know, for meals. They work hard, but it’s good, clean work. They seem real to me in a way that my parents do not. I learned this proverb from my grandfather: ‘Lao ma shi tu.’ It means an old horse knows the way. My old country China is the old horse that knows the way.”

When she finished reading, Katie looked up anxiously at Marianne. Marianne’s face was only inches away since Katie read so softly she had to get close to hear the words. “That’s very moving. I like it a lot.”

Katie said, “Thank you. You don’t hate it because about China?”

“No, not at all. It has wonderful details, I can really fell what your grandparents were like. Would you be able to read it to the group?” Marianne crossed her fingers. Had she put too much pressure on Katie?

Katie broke out in a huge grin. “You really liked it!” But she said, “I would be scared to read. Maybe no one hears me.”

Marianne said, “I’ll get them to bring a microphone. I think what you wrote is important. I think people would want to hear it. Okay?” She waited, hoping Katie would agree. Finally she nodded. Marianne beckoned over one of the helpers with a microphone. When Branch called for volunteer readers, Marianne suggested Katie and she was first. She stood up. Marianne saw that her knees were shaking and she leaned one hand on the back of her chair. But with the microphone, everyone could hear her read. There had been applause after every girl read, but it seemed to Marianne that this applause was extra loud and long. Katie’s eyes shone as she bowed and sat down, then got up and bowed again.

After several other girls read, a volunteer came over to Katie and asked her permission to copy the piece. She had Katie write her name on the page and took a digital photo for the PenGirls anthology for the year. “I can’t promise it will be used, but it if is, they’ll get your permission again when they put the book together,” the volunteer told Katie. Her eyes were still sparkling and she stood much straighter. Marianne was thrilled to see such an increase in confidence in her mentee.

The two exchanged contact information and agreed to keep in touch by email. “I don’t have my own cell phone, so it’s hard to get me that way. But I have free time at computer lab at school every day,” Katie explained. She shook hands with Marianne and bowed to Crystal before she joined the stream of girls going out to the busses.

Marianne said, “I am overwhelmed. This was amazing.”

Crystal said, “Oh, yes. I think this is a great group. I already know a lot about Toni and your mentee’s piece was very good. I’m glad you found out about this group.”

“Me too. But Katie’s going to challenge my ideas about China, that’s clear.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing?” Crystal said with a smile.

“Maybe. And I’m writing something about China and America to submit to the lit magazine. I figured out that I have some pretty conflicted ideas about my roots, but that’s interesting to explore.”

“I’ll bet. If you need a reviewer, I’d love to read it.”

“No. I’m not sure if it would be good for our relationship if you critiqued my writing, especially about something so fraught.” Marianne half-smiled. “If I knew what I really thought, I’d be a lot more comfortable showing it to you.”

“No biggie. We can always talk, though, if you want.”

“Yeah, I know. I need to get over being so hella shy about my feelings if I want to be a writer. Everyone and anyone would read about what I feel when it’s published, so why not before? I’ll think about it. Thanks.”

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