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No More Hand-Holding
I’ve stopped relying on adults for that extra push
Edgar Lopez
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I sat in the back of the bus next to my friend Kevin. We were on our way to Philadelphia to visit colleges with our 8th grade class, and I was happy to be away from school for the next four days. When girls sat down next to us to wait for the bathroom, I went with the old-fashioned move: the yawn and act like I’m stretching to put my arm around them. “When are we gonna go out, baby?” I asked one girl.

The main purpose of the trip was to give us a taste of college life and introduce us to college professors and students. But for us students, the real purpose was to escape from school and parents, and to have fun during the long bus rides and in the hotels. Or so I thought.

Heard It All Before

We arrived at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, our first destination, around noon. It looked like a fun place to be. Students were studying on the lawns and hanging out with their friends. I noticed some were still wearing pajamas, or shorts and flip-flops. I pointed out to one of my teachers that a successful educational institution did not have to require uniforms like ours did. She just smiled and shook her head.

After lunch we went outside to talk with a group of college students. I was in the back, playing around with my friends and half paying attention. “Not another boring talk,” I thought.

Everything the students said, I had heard before: “College is fun but you have to balance your school life and social life,” and, “All you do in college is read, so be prepared for it.”

Hearing Something New—and Scary

When my classmate Sandra (not her real name) raised her hand, I shook my head. She loved to show off her vocabulary. “What was the most perplexing experience you faced in the transition from high school to college?” she asked.

“I think having the freedom is a problem, because if you aren’t serious it becomes very easy to fail,” said one of the college students. That wouldn’t be a problem for me, I thought. I knew how to stay focused.

“Having to buy all your textbooks is the hardest part,” answered a tall Hispanic student. I knew about having to purchase your own materials, so that wasn’t a shock either.

My teacher’s nephew Michael, an African-American freshman, was next. “The hardest thing for me was not having teachers who were close to me. I went to a small school in Manhattan like you guys, where all the teachers were supportive and gave students that extra push to succeed. They don’t do that here. All they want is their tuition money,” he said.

Suddenly, I was like, “Whoa.” He seemed just like us—a young male from Brooklyn. That connection allowed me to see for the first time the situation I might face in a few years. And it terrified me.

My school, which I’ve attended since 6th grade, is small and all the students and teachers know each other well. I was a decent student but I was lazy and held my work on cruise control. My teachers often pushed me to do better and offered a lot of extra help. I’d grown accustomed to that nurturing and expected it to continue as I got older.

Hearing how different college would be from someone with an experience similar to mine made me scared I might be unsuccessful there. I didn’t know how to get things done without that extra push from teachers. I looked around and saw no one else moved by his words. Was I the only one who got the message?

How Can I Change?

Three days later, the long bus ride home gave me a chance to reflect on my fear. I decided I needed to start working more independently now, so that by the time college came around, I’d be ready. But who was going to help me get to a point of self-reliance? Because ironically, I knew I could not become self-reliant alone. I felt I needed to slowly experience independence and grow accustomed to it.

I decided to go to the root of the problem, which was my dependence on a particular teacher in our school, Ms. Stevenson. She was a good teacher and students could talk to her about anything. I decided I had to ask her if she could help me become more independent.

‘I Need Your Help’

Two days after we returned from the trip, I nervously walked down the stairs toward Ms. Stevenson’s office. I didn’t want my request to backfire and have one of my most supportive teachers no longer be there for me. Or, even worse, she might think I was ungrateful for all her help.

“Ms. Stevenson, may I please speak to you?” I said, standing in the doorway of her office.

“Sure Edgar, what’s wrong?” she said.

image by Terrence Taylor

I started out by telling her what the college students had told us on the trip. Then I told her, “Ms. Stevenson, I need to learn how to approach problems with my schoolwork on my own. I really appreciate all the help you give me, but if I don’t get used to doing stuff on my own now, by the time college comes around I’m going to be in trouble,” I said.

I was relieved when she said, “I understand and I’m glad you’ve decided to do this.” Later that day, we met and made a plan.

The First Plan Fails

Her first idea was to stop checking on me. Ms. Stevenson would often come by my class and give me a mad look if she saw me playing around. I knew that look meant “get to work,” and I counted on it to get focused.

We agreed that if she no longer did that, it would force me to get serious on my own, for my own benefit. We also agreed that I would stop going to her for help with schoolwork unless I made an extra effort on my own first.

It was a good plan. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Right away, I took advantage of our deal and became more of a slacker than ever. I walked around in the hallway during class because I knew Ms. Stevenson wouldn’t be checking on me. I knew I wasn’t achieving my goal of self-reliance, but slacking off was like an addiction. Besides, I was confident I could perform on the tests, so my grades would be fine.

Nobody Changes Overnight

Then my report card arrived in June. My average had plummeted about 10 points for the first time ever. I felt horrible. It made me feel that I couldn’t do this alone, and I felt even less confident in my ability to perform in college. But I told myself that nobody just changes overnight. I had to keep trying.

“You’re back,” Ms. Stevenson said when I appeared in her office again.

“Yeah, have you seen my report card?” I said.

“I knew this would happen. Do you see what I’ve been trying to keep you away from?”

That report card turned out to be a good reality check. Now I knew what would happen if I wasn’t self-reliant. I needed to get serious about becoming a more independent student.

On My Own

Over the next year, my freshman year in high school, there were many more obstacles on my path to self-reliance. I failed biology my first semester and did poorly in math.

But all the work I handed in was mine alone. It felt good that I wasn’t going to Ms. Stevenson for help. After I did badly that first semester, I decided to cut out the baby in me and do what I needed to do to improve my grades.

I developed a study schedule. Every day I devoted no less than 30 minutes to every subject I received homework for, instead of not studying at all, like before. Instead of complaining that I didn’t know a topic, I began to read more about it.

And instead of spending money on expensive sneakers or clothes, I invested in myself. I went to Barnes & Noble and found biology textbooks that targeted high school graduation exams and went into more depth than my schoolbooks.

Ready for College

By the end of my freshman year, I realized I was working independently. My study habits were now a part of my routine. My greatest moment was seeing my report card that June.

I had done better in all of my classes. I was most excited to see an 85 for my French class, the hardest class I had. Through my own persistence I had improved my grade by 15 points.

Now I never expect anyone to hold my hand and do my work for me. I’m not a machine that knows everything, but I don’t automatically run for help anymore when I can’t comprehend something. This has helped me prepare for the real world, during college and after it.

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(NYC-2008-09-16)

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