Against The Odds

two-handsWhen you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure and wonder. ~ John O’Donohue

One day my friend Anna-Majia Lee called and in the course of our conversation about POPS the Club—Anna-Majia wants to help bring it to cities across Minnesota—she explained so clearly what I’ve come to understand in the three years since we launched the first POPS club:

“It’s often the kids who have all the strikes against them who prove their resilience and strength. They prove that given one little hand up, one word of praise, they can overcome the most daunting odds.”

When she called, I was getting ready to leave a POPS the Club meeting at Venice High, and so I thanked her and hurried over to the school. When I walked into the room, I was struck as I always am in public schools by the riot of sights and sounds—chalk dust mixed with salty air and sweaty skin, the buzz of broken loudspeakers, slamming lockers, fluorescents, and that sea of hoodies and miniskirts, baseball caps and baggy pants. Most public schools are not beautiful places, but whenever I walk into Room 120 at Venice where POPS the Club meets, I’m struck by the way that room with its broken Venetian blinds and sticky linoleum floor becomes exquisite. Most days I’m brought to my knees in awe of the way kindness and honesty transforms the space, the way the voices of people inspiring and guiding each other, offering friendship and solace, turns the coldest rooms into oases, the way the scent of bread from Le Pain Quotidien and cheese casseroles and big salads from Factors Famous Deli alter the very atmosphere of our room.

That Wednesday in March, when the lunch period bell rang, a tidal wave of kids poured into the room, and with them came a sea of volunteers. When Dennis, who sponsors the club at Venice, saw the crowd, he decided to break us into small groups for “small group sharing day.” He assigned a volunteer to each group.

Most of the groups were composed of four or five, but Dennis sent me to sit with Yesenia and Jessica who sat alone, a group of their own. “Yesenia, read your story to Amy,” Jessica said, and Yesenia blushed and began to read Motherless Girl. I’d always noticed Yesenia’s voice was childlike, but with each sentence she read her voice grew deeper and more mature.

I learned that when she was 8, she lived with her 28-year-old schizophrenic mother and became “a mother to her mother.” When her mom was diagnosed and sent away, Child Services moved Yesenia to a foster home, then another and another. At 10 she was finally back with her mom, but when Mom was sent away again, she returned to foster care. Now, at 16—just 16—she is back with her mom, being a mother again. “We need each other,” she read from her story, and she choked up a little. Jessica placed a comforting hand on her friend’s arm and said, “The thing is, in this room we all understand.”

“You read now,” Yesenia said, so Jessica read her story about visiting her father in prison and “feeling like a criminal myself when all I want is to be Daddy’s little girl…” Before she joined POPS, Jessica had never told anyone that story.

When she was finished, I asked both girls if they would read to the whole group next week. I know how much courage it takes to do that. There are usually 60 plus people in the room.

But they both said, “Yes!” Then Jessica added, “But I might cry.”

“That’s okay,” Yesenia said.

“I’ll cry,” I told them. “I promise you,” and that made them both laugh and Jessica said, “You always cry!”

“It’s okay to cry in here,” Yesenia said. “When I cry I look up and breathe really deep, and I see all those nice faces. That usually makes me stop crying.”

“Okay, Jessica said. “I’ll read.”

The next week at POPS, Jessica did, and while I listened I thought about how much I admire these brave, wise young people I see at POPS the Club meetings every week. I think about how right Anna-Majia is—that it is so often these kids who have so many strikes against them who show such resilience and strength when we offer them one little hand up, one word of praise.

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