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Young authors share stories from the heart
Seattle Times reporter
If someone gave him sympathy, Devonte Parsons would take it. Life has hit him hard, between his father's murder and all that trouble at school.
But sympathy is not what Devonte was after when he wrote down his life story. He was hoping for something else.
"Just to be heard," he said.
Tuesday night, Devonte rose to the podium at John Marshall Alternative School and read from a new book of student writing called "It's Not Always Happily Ever After."
The collection of essays, poems and fiction features the work of 23 students from John Marshall and four from American Indian Heritage School. Its focus is family, with one teenager writing a poem to her daughter, and another including a fried-chicken recipe from the grandmother who raised her.
"Some of the writing is quite great and wonderful," said Teri Hein, executive director of 826 Seattle, the free tutoring center that sponsored the project. "And some of it is just really from the heart."
826 Seattle opened last autumn, part of a national network of tutoring centers started by author Dave Eggers. The center has drawn considerable support from the literary community, with writer Sherman Alexie serving on its board and writing the forward to the new book, which was released at a private launch Tuesday night.
As soon as it opened, Audra Gallegos, a teacher at John Marshall, took her students to 826 Seattle on a field trip, encouraging them to come after school. Two months later, not one of her students had returned.
To get the book
So 826 came to them. Nearly two dozen tutors visited John Marshall over the course of five weeks, working with the students one-on-one.
"That's every public-school teacher's dream," Gallegos said.
Students at John Marshall come with more challenges than most. They are often a year or two behind in school. Some have little parental support at home. Their stories bring tears to Gallegos' eyes.
But sympathy will not help them get to college. So if you want to help these students, she said, set high expectations and get them extra help.
"Look at what they can accomplish," she said, pointing to the book.
The writing did not always come easy. It took 13-year-old JaQuenna Wilson weeks to figure out where to even begin. Then she got inspired by her grandmother — that bingo-playing, White Diamond-wearing woman who took JaQuenna to her first day of preschool.
"Your pencil's glued to the paper, and you write until you think the paper's going to burn up," she said.
The result is "My Life, Grandma, and Fried Chicken," a two-page tribute to the woman who raised JaQuenna most of her life.
Some of the students were natural writers, producing clean, reflective pieces within a couple of sessions. Others came to the task with more hard work ahead. Gallegos said several of the students improved their writing significantly.
For Liera Williams, 17, there was relief in the writing. It helped, somehow, to tell someone else about the shelter her family stayed in — the holes in the wall, the stains on the floor, the rats and the mice all around.
She had no trouble getting all the details down in "When Will We Get There." But something was missing from the piece, the tutors said. How did she feel about that year her family spent homeless?
It never occurred to Liera to put that in.
"I didn't think people would care," she said.
Gallegos was not surprised by the sadness in some stories. She has taught at John Marshall for several years now. She knows what these kids face. But it is always surprising, she said, to see how easily the students accept what they are given as normal.
"They hand you this big heavy thing like it's nothing," she said of their life stories.
Some students wrote from frustration, wondering where parents had gone. Others wrote tributes to the family they found elsewhere. There are several profiles of friends, grandparents and uncles who pulled the students through.
For years, Tiarra Knox, 16, believed what some said, that she wasn't worth a quarter. Then cousin Alice told her differently.
And cousin Alice should know. She got a college scholarship this year. She sees the world "through elderly eyes," Tiarra wrote in "The Family We Were Given."
"Alice knows and gets me better than anyone else, she knows when I want to be left alone, and she knows when I need love."
Devonte, 13, has his grandmother for inspiration. Through all the suspensions and expulsions, she has stood by him. She has cried, she has gotten angry, and then, she has forgiven. She is the heroine of "Devonte's Untold Story."
Devonte said he is calm in class now, and works harder than usual. When he feels tempted by trouble, he tries to think of all the good things he will lose if he gives in.
"Sometimes it doesn't work, but most of the time, I try," he said.
He tries mostly for his grandmother. He doesn't want her to worry. Not now, he said, and not later, when she is looking down on him from heaven.
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company