“You matter,” I told her across the table. She locked eyes with me. Like she always had. You see, I met her in kindergarten. She grabbed my hand, her eyes searching for mine. Once she caught my gaze, I was bewitched. “I’m Ashley,” she had said to me way back then. And I loved her. Right then and there.
I have watched her grow over the last seven years from a tiny little girl to a beautiful pre-teen. Getting a view of the world through the life of a low income Latina. As my daughter Olivia started to advance in accelerated classes in third grade, Ashley, smart as a whip, was placed behind. The disadvantage of an ESL kid clearly at play. Yet, every week she navigated the bus system with her mom and brother to the Kumon center. Quietly protesting. Working.
“You are going to go to that middle school and many of the white kids are in the advanced classes and most of the Latino kids are not,” I told her. “And you know what you are going to do?”
“What?” she asked, eyes bulging.
“You are going to say, ‘Screw You.’ You are going to succeed in spite of it all,” I told her, “because you can.”
“This is so helpful Mara,” she said taking a bite of her chocolate tart. Her eyes sparkling as bright as those days in kindergarten. And there we sat, in our bubble of connection, hope.
I can’t say I would have even been aware of Ashley and what it takes to advance out of poverty if it wasn’t for my mom. For the last 25 years Linda Mornell has placed low-income high school kids all over the country in summer programs. Interrupting negative patterns, instilling confidence, and ultimately teaching them to reach their potential.
Her new book about her experience with adolescents and building Summer Search, Forever Changed, is full of stories of kids like Ashley. Each one, prevailing in their own way, pulling themselves out of the deep hole that they were born into with the help of mentorship, serious introspection and a lot of character altering life experiences.
Changing their course ultimately changed my mom’s as well. And mine to a much smaller degree. I saw Ashley. That is the bonus. Of looking outside your own world and seeing anothers. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
With confidence, I explained to Ashley, the circumstances would flip if she can manage to stay above water. Ignore the forces against her, work hard and embrace the possibility. All those coveting spots in college will be looking for her, not Olivia. Finally, a first generation Latina whose mom cleans houses and whose dad works in landscaping has the advantage.
And over dessert we plotted. In six more years her time will come.