By Stephanie (Crisp) Diaz
Special to the Express
MIAMI — “Miss Crisp, you gotta listen to this song,” a former student of mine named Dave told me recently. Most songs that my students share with me speak to their experiences in some way, and the opening lyrics of this one grabbed my attention.
“Am I wrong for thinking out the box from where I stay? Am I wrong for saying that I choose another way? I ain’t trying to do what everybody else is doing,” the duo Nico and Vinz croon. Although this wasn’t the typical hip-hop musical recommendation that I receive from my students, I knew immediately why the song had resonated with Dave. As a Teach for America corps member at a Title I high school in Miami, the students I worked with every day faced a constant struggle to, as the song suggests, think beyond the norms of their neighborhoods and aim for a higher education. The song struck a chord with both Dave and I because that push to think differently and work toward college was a constant refrain in our classroom for the two years that I worked with him and his classmates, most of whom would be the first in their families to attend college and some who would be the first to graduate from high school.
Two summers ago, the Express featured a story on my students selling their original poetry books to raise money for a trip to visit colleges in Boston. I dreamed up the trip as a way of exposing my students to both a college experience and the world beyond their city, something to which most of them had very limited exposure. I felt that by giving them the experience of actually living in a dorm, eating in the dining halls, and visiting a city that is simply full of college students, it would become real for them, allowing them to actually see this path as an option for them.
No sooner had I hatched this plan and gotten the school on board, however, than I realized what a huge undertaking it would be to actually finance the experience. As a Whitman-Hanson alum and a former Express intern, reaching out to my hometown paper to get the word out seemed like a great first step, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. After all, the citizens of Hanson and Whitman had their own schools and students to support; asking for donations to help a school in Miami seemed a lot to ask.
After the article was published, however, I was truly overwhelmed by the response from the community and the way that my former teachers, librarians, neighbors, and friends contacted me to help the cause. Ultimately, community donations helped us meet our goal of raising over $6,000 towards bringing 22 teenagers to stay at the dorms at Boston University for five days last June. In a thank you to our donors, Dave wrote, “Because of you my mind is now officially set on going to college,” while Latosha explained that, “I learned that it was okay to branch out and try new things and new places.” James told me recently that he plans to move to Boston when he finishes school because he fell in love with the city.
And yet the piece of the experience that almost all of the students said was their favorite part of the trip was the day we spent at my parents’ house in Hanson, meeting friends, family, and community members, including State Rep. Josh Cutler, who later in the week met us again for a tour of the State House. This community played an enormous role in influencing the futures of 22 young men and women, and this past year, another group from our Miami high school made the journey to Boston, extending the opportunity to a new group of students.
On May 30, almost exactly a year after our plane took off, I watched every single student who had accompanied us on the trip cross the stage and receive their diploma. Our group included students who had experienced being homeless, being shot, and facing the criminal justice system, as well as students who were essay contest winners, employees of the month, volunteers, athletic champions, members of National Honor Society, and the valedictorian. Considering all that they had overcome and all that they had accomplished, it was truly incredible for me to realize how many of the people who have been so influential in my success also played a role in helping my “kids” to realize their potential as well.
In September, some will begin their new lives in such big-name colleges as the University of Miami and University of Florida, others will attend smaller schools, and one will join the military. They will major in engineering, child psychology, nursing, physical therapy, marketing, film, and business, among others. They have, in the end, been able to “think outside the box” and avoid its limitations.
Like the graduates of Whitman-Hanson, my students are both nervous and excited for the next steps in their lives. I, too, am incredibly excited to see all that they will do and become, and will continue to be grateful to all of those from Hanson and Whitman who became an additional community ally in our fight for a positive future.