In the early 90s, Cecilia Woloch was hired to lead poetry workshops at El Sereno Junior High in East LA, where gang violence was then at an all-time high. Her first class consisted of thirty-five twelve- and thirteen-year-olds considered to be highly gifted but also highly at-risk—“really smart gangbangers,” as she describes them now. She worked with this class for two years, and as time passed, Woloch got to know her students through their poetry. She asked them to write about their lives and their dreams, how they saw themselves in their own imaginations. “There wasn’t a single poem without a reference to guns, shootings, funerals, deaths,” she writes. “I hadn’t asked for this; I hadn’t thought I’d asked for this.”
In her first weeks teaching at El Sereno, Woloch met Mario, a bright, talented boy whose poetry forced Woloch to question her role and obligations to her students. Mario is at the center of her essay “Highly Gifted / Highly At-Risk,” which appears in issue #63 of Creative Nonfiction. She captures Mario at a crossroads, when becoming a father gives him a way out of gang life and inspires him to focus on his schoolwork. Woloch hears reports of his college acceptance. The essay ends:
I keep hoping that at least some of this is true, that Mario made it out and made another kind of life for himself. I keep hoping, maybe against all reason, that someday I’ll see his name on the cover of a book of poems.
When we accepted her essay for publication, Woloch replied: “Although I tried to write about this experience many times, it was wanting to submit a piece for this issue that finally motivated me to get it down. So, I have Creative Nonfiction to thank for some magic that’s occurred.”
We were pleased to hear that the theme for this issue had inspired Woloch to finally tell her story. We were even more pleased to find out that writing the essay had also inspired her to reach out to her former student, Mario.
“I felt I had to write to Mario and ask for his permission—really, his blessing—which he’s given,” she said. “I wrote to him, he wrote back, and what he’s done with his life is nothing short of amazing. He raised his son alone, put himself through college, and now works with an organization called National Compadres Network/National Latino Father and Family Institute.”
We asked Woloch about the motivation behind her writing and the relationships we have with the people we write about.
CNF: When we opened the call for submissions for the “How We Teach” issue, did you know immediately that this was the story that you wanted to tell?
WOLOCH: Yes, I did. I have lots of stories about teaching that I’d like to tell, but this one has been on my mind for a long time. In fact, I already had a rough draft in my files, so the call for submissions inspired me to go back to that material and shape it into an essay.
CNF: You mentioned that you had been wanting to tell this story for a long time but couldn’t get it onto the page. Do you think that, as a writer, it’s important to let the story ripen until it’s ready to be told?
WOLOCH: I do. I get impatient, and that has its upside—I’m an obsessive journal-keeper, and I make notes and, almost always, have lots of drafts of things before I start to actually shape a piece of writing. So, I have all of that material to turn back to and work from once I finally really get to work on something, but the impatience has to be tempered with a kind of “wild patience” that allows the story to, as you say, “ripen.” I think it’s mostly about waiting until I have the perspective I need, a kind of distance that allows me to have some objectivity about both the subject matter and the writing. There’s a risk of waiting too long, of course, and letting the opportunity—the sense of urgency, or inspiration, or timeliness, or whatever—slip past. But often, when it’s taken a long time for me to get something artful or shapely onto the page, it’s because it’s taken that long for the pieces to come together into some kind of meaningful whole. In some cases, there‘s a piece of information that wasn’t available earlier, a piece that’s been missing, and it suddenly becomes available. When that happens, it can make me feel as if I wasn’t procrastinating, only exercising a kind of inspired patience all along.
CNF: You reached out to your student, Mario, when we offered to publish your essay. Why did you think it was important to ask his permission to tell this story?
WOLOCH: I had tried to track down Mario years earlier. As I mention in the essay, there was a teacher at El Sereno and another former student who passed along to me what they’d heard about how he was doing. But I hadn’t succeeded in finding a way to reach him. I’d done a search online, at some point, and that hadn’t led me anywhere. But, since the information online changes so quickly, and since it had been a few years since I’d last tried, as soon as I hit “submit” on the essay I got a hit for a name that looked like Mario’s—the last name I’d known him by appeared as a middle name, although the surname was different. This Mario was working for a social services agency in the San Jose area, the National Latino Father and Family Institute. This Mario was Manager of Training & Capacity Building. I took a chance and sent an email. Within an hour, I got back a long message—yes, this was “my” Mario, the “big little kid,” as he described himself, who had been my student at El Sereno. I cried like a baby over that message, over the miracle he’d made of his life: raising a child alone from the age of sixteen; getting himself out of the gang and working in gang intervention; putting himself through college; going on to work across the country with young Latino men. Really, it was a teacher’s dream come true.
So, we started a correspondence. I told him I’d been writing about him, but I didn’t send him the essay right away. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how much of a chance there was that it would be accepted, and I’m always self-conscious about sharing my writing before it’s been “vetted” in some way. But once the essay was accepted, I knew I had to let him read it and say yes or no before I gave permission for it to be published—because I respected his right to privacy and because I wouldn’t ever want to do anything to jeopardize his standing in the community, what he’s accomplished professionally, what he’s accomplished in terms of his family. At the same time, I felt his story could be such an inspiration to so many people. And I think that his personal story is an important part of the work Mario does with other men. His response to the essay was wonderful, although he told me he cried at the memories it brought back, good and bad. Really, the whole process has been pretty emotional for both of us, I think—a lot of tears falling onto keyboards as we’ve written back and forth.
CNF: As a teacher, and as a writer, do you think that there is a sort of ethical obligation to the people you teach and write about?
WOLOCH: If you mean an ethical obligation to ask permission of those people before going public with a piece of writing about them, in this case, yes, definitely. But I’m not sure it would be a good idea for a writer to always feel she needs permission to draw from her own life. I think there’s a kind of self-censorship in that, and that there might even be something dishonest in it. No one’s life is an island; each person’s life touches so many others. My life is my own, and my life is my material. So, if you’re in my life, chances are good that you’re going to show up in my writing, at some point—especially if, for whatever reason, you’ve become a part of my inner life, as well. Sometimes, as in this case, when I felt it was important for Mario to have his say about what I’d written, I ask for permission before something is published. Other times, someone I’ve written about may not be recognizable as an individual in what I’ve written, isn’t named or clearly identified in the writing, or may no longer be around to ask, and in those cases, I don’t feel obliged to ask for permission. Some people love to be written about and some people hate it. We can’t predict that. We can’t control how people will respond, and we want to honor the privacy of others, insofar as we can—but we risk writing a bloodless literature if we’re too careful, too circumspect, if we compartmentalize what we can write about and what we can’t, if we censor ourselves. I think it’s also important to remember that memory is always “selective”; when we’re working from memory, we’re choosing, consciously or otherwise, those details that will help us create a shapely whole. So, nothing is “the whole truth,” really. I’ve told only a small part of Mario’s story—really, only a part of the story of working with him, and with the other young people at El Sereno. This is my version, one version of one story; what I’m hoping is that Mario will tell his own version of his story one day. I think I was hoping that same thing on the day I gave him the Luis Rodriguez book for middle school graduation—although I couldn’t have known, yet, what a story he would live.
CNF: And how is Mario doing? We were delighted to hear that you were able to contact him and find out the rest of his story.
WOLOCH: His life has turned out as beautifully as I could have hoped, even more so, especially given the obstacles he’s had to overcome. What he’s accomplished is so enormous, and has taken such courage and strength and faith. He’d become a father, already, at age fourteen, when he was in my class, and he became a single father at age sixteen. At sixteen he also became a peer leader in a gang intervention program. He was able to extricate himself from gang life—generations deep in his family—and forge his own path. Here’s an excerpt from his first letter to me:
At sixteen I also became a peer leader in a gang intervention program. This helped the development of my career and personal mission in life at creating safe spaces for marginalized, underserved communities to be able to begin their healing journeys and create positive movement in youth, families, and communities.
I’ve also been blessed to use my own life experiences to demonstrate how true traditional cultural values and the ability to see our life experiences as teachings can help us on our individual and communal healing journeys.
When I speak I often reflect back on being a lost kid with no voice or ability to express myself and how during a class in junior high I was given back my voice, and that from that moment forward, no one was ever going to shut me down or devalue what I have to say. I owe you a tremendous amount of gratitude for being the catalyst that sparked my ability to share and build connections. I have since worked with thousands of young men and fathers to hopefully plant the same seed of hope that you and many adults, who I see as Angels, planted in my heart. In this work I’ve even been blessed to work alongside Luis Rodriguez and have shared with him the story about how I received his book from a wild energetic poetry teacher who opened up the possibility of poetry to a bunch of East LA kids.
I am now a father of three, my son and two middle school daughters, 13 and 12, have been married for 13.5 years, and am grandfather to a 2-year-old little girl who rules my world.
CNF: Mario mentioned in his email back to you that writing gave him a voice. Your class allowed him to share his story through his writing and to form connections with people that he may have otherwise never formed. Has there ever been a time when writing has served you in a similar way?
WOLOCH: My personal history was very different from Mario’s and from the family histories of my other students at El Sereno, on one level, but there were similarities on other levels. My grandparents were immigrants, mostly illiterate and desperately poor. A lot of my relatives had criminal records; my father had done “hard time” before I was born. No one in my immediate family had ever finished high school until I did; I was the first in my family to graduate, and to go on to college. Part of the reason I wanted to write was that I felt as if the stories of families like mine were mostly unwritten, mostly not part of the literature, mostly discounted and devalued. Wanting to become a writer, given my background, was pretty audacious. But I was blessed with very encouraging teachers—one high school teacher, in particular, who gave me the gift of encouragement and taught me, through her faith in me, to have faith in myself. My life as a writer has exposed me to worlds I never dreamed I’d see, even to worlds I hadn’t realized existed. I’m connected to a network of writers and artists that spans the globe; I’ve given readings and led workshops in places like Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul. Really, it was reading that first opened the possibility of other worlds to me; but being a reader is so inextricably part of being a writer, to my mind, that I couldn’t say where one leaves off and the other begins.
CNF: In your essay, you describe learning about your students through their writing. Do you think that it’s safe to say that, as a teacher, learning from your students is half the job?
WOLOCH: I feel pretty strongly that it should be a two-way street. My best—I would even say my most “inspired”—teaching has come from paying very close attention to the students I’m teaching and to the classroom dynamics, making sure that everyone feels empowered to speak and to question, and staying open to what I might not yet know. I know a lot about literature and writing; I know a lot about language and how it works; I’ve had a lot of experience with the creative process. But I don’t know everything. If I ever came to the point where I thought I had nothing left to learn, well, that would have to be the end of teaching for me, and of writing. On the other hand, if I’m successful in creating the kind of environment that nurtures real exchange, that allows every person to tap into and give voice to their experience and their truth, to things they may not have even known they knew, well, that’s going to be a source of deeper knowledge and understanding for me, as well.
Read Cecilia Woloch’s full essay, “Highly Gifted / Highly At-Risk,” in issue #63: “How WE TEACH.”