When people find out I’m the executive director of a youth writing program, they immediately assume my goal is to turn kids into future professional writers.
I’m not that cruel. There are easier ways to make a living.
What I do tell young people is this: If you believe you’ll never be happy doing anything else, if the desire to write engulfs your every thought like a Santa Ana brush fire, then go for it.
But if writing is just one of several avenues you’re pondering as a future livelihood, you might want to save yourself from a possible life of indigence and desolation and try the other avenues.
Writing is hard. And lonely. And adequate remuneration is almost always elusive.
But what is true, and this I tell young people as well, is that the ability to write is wondrous.
And often miraculous.
It can allow you to write an essay so imaginative that it just might overcome four years of mediocre grades and get you into college. You can write a cover letter so snappy and compelling that it screams out from the pile of snoozers that sit in front of your future employer. You can compose a eulogy that so movingly captures the essence of a departed loved one that the person will live forever in the hearts and minds of all who hear your words.
And that’s just for starters.
But the best thing about knowing how to write? It teaches you to think clearly, to make smart choices, to weigh consequences.
Thinking clearly is the first, and most critical, step in the writing process. If you’re not thinking clearly, you can’t write anything anybody wants to read.
It’s why teaching kids how to write — and thus to think clearly — should be a national priority. Especially now, when lucidity and the ability to discern real news from spin or propaganda or outright untruth may be the one thing that keeps all of us from tripping down the rabbit hole of lunacy.
Sadly, though, the teaching of writing is not valued in many, if not most, school systems and classrooms. Too often writing sits alone in the back of the bus — forgotten, barely visible behind the long shadows of math, science and standardized test prep.
And here’s the really stupid part: What good is being a math or science whiz if you can’t communicate your findings?
Hard truth: The high school dropout rate in Philadelphia hovers around 35 percent. That single fact — and the crushing consequences that dropping out of high school leaves in its wake — may be the biggest reason Philadelphia is perpetually listed among the poorest big cities in the nation.
Would the dropout rate be so high if kids were learning how to express their feelings clearly and boldly through writing?
At Mighty Writers, we think not. We see what happens at our four writing centers when kids learn to express themselves: confidence builds, grades improve, and self-esteem soars.
It’s why this week we’re announcing a new initiative that will bring the power of writing to a lot more Philly kids. Beginning in January, we’ll launch a pilot program at the Rivera Rec Center in the Fairhill section of the city, replete with writing workshops like our patented Girl Power! and comic book classes. In September, we plan to offer classes in three more rec centers, and to add more rec centers to our roster after that.
Rec centers are where Philly kids hang, and our goal is to make writing as much a Philly rec center staple as basketball, swimming and dance.
Still, for Philly to become home to the best student writing in the country — which is the only real goal worth aspiring to — we need the schools to be on board too. And with Mayor Kenney’s recent decision to replace the School Reform Commission (SRC) with a local school board, we have a major opportunity to do just that.
By writing, of course.
There is no greater disrupter than knowing how to express yourself with clarity and purpose.
If, with each new board member Kenney appoints, we all take pen to paper, and tell that appointee why the School District should make writing in schools a major priority, things could change.
And if that happens, we’ll produce a generation of Philly kids that can think clearly and write with clarity.
Just watch what happens to the dropout rate then.
Tim Whitaker is the executive director of Mighty Writers. @mightywriters