Some days I think I know how to write. But every Wednesday evening, when I meet 13-year old Christian Precise, I rediscover how much I have yet to learn.
Stories have always flowed effortlessly from Christian, an 8th grader who is graduating to Masterman High School in September. She is a student at Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit whose mission is to teach kids to think and write with clarity.
She has an entire portfolio of fiction to share on request. Many of her tales revolve around talking cats. (She impishly describes herself as a “crazy cat lady.”) When I first met her in 2012, she had not embraced nonfiction, preferring instead to capture the world of her imagination.
But a few weeks ago, our weekly mentoring sessions took a sobering turn. Instead of the lightness I’d come to expect with her, Christian was silent. She quietly handed me a nonfiction essay titled “Lamentation.” On the page she had written her thoughts on finding out that a classmate had recently committed suicide. As Christian and her classmates grieved together, she grabbed a pencil and started capturing the moments around her:
What does it mean to lose a friend? After a fight about something stupid? After your friend transfers schools? After your friend moves away?
After your friend died?
I know that feeling. And it really hurts. You just want to curl up in a corner and cry until you die. Or punch a wall and rage at everything. Everything around you seems louder. You feel more irritable. As for your friend? You just want them back. But you can’t have them back.
Christian told me that she found solace in writing her grief at that moment, in editing it, so we worked on it together. And she wrote and re-wrote it until she was satisfied.
When I met Christian, she was 12 years old. I had started volunteering as a mentor at Mighty Writers after hearing about how the workshops used fun themes — like superhero comic books — to encourage writing. But it was more than just curiosity. I felt compelled to be at a place like Mighty Writers.
As a child who grew up in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Olney, I recognized firsthand the value of a place like this that offers young people a sanctuary, a place to go after school to learn in a nurturing environment.
When I was 12, I wasn’t allowed to play outside, because my mother was afraid for my safety. Christian’s mother feels the same way about her two daughters, but she happily brings them both to Mighty Writers every Monday through Thursday, because she wants them to have the support they need to graduate from high school and go on to college.
Mighty Writers’ mission is critical. Right now, only 64 percent of Philadelphia students graduate from high school, and every second person in Philadelphia, according to a recent study, isn’t able to fill out a job application, apply for a mortgage, or read the news.
But Christian is lucky. She has an interest in writing and the support and encouragement that many students her age don’t have, and I am confident that she will go from high school to college and ever higher. Whatever else happens in her life, I know she will have cultivated a lifelong habit of writing through the support of Mighty Writers.
So that’s why I volunteer. If you ever want to visit Christian and me, stop by Mighty Writers’ South Philadelphia location at 15th and Christian streets on a Wednesday evening. We’ll read you a story.