I stride into the principal's office promptly at 8:15am; feeling surreal to be back in high school wearing the facial expression and pencil skirt of a professional. I have come for what I imagine will be a let's-make-sure-you're-not-a-predator kind of meeting; a discussion of what volunteering as a story coach for a prospective college student at Oakland Tech might look like.
Instead I enter to find the student in question already seated, sheepishly clutching a piece of notebook paper in her lap. The principal, who has a purple streak in her bangs, issues a hearty greeting from behind her desk.
"I thought we'd just go ahead and get started," she exclaims. "This here is B."
I sit down next to B and introduce myself. When she proves reluctant to talk about herself, the principal interjects. "B is a one of the best students we've had here in years. She's here every morning at 7am, asking how can she help, can she do this or that. She's a real gem."
The principal leans forward to tap her manicured finger meaningfully on a pile of papers. "But she's learning now - aren't you? - that you can't escape your past. When I was a student we got away with murder! There were no computers back then. But not now, honey, no way. That record follows you."
Turns out, although B has achieved a nice upward curve with her grades in recent years, her performance during freshman year was... well... another story.
I ask B to tell me about what she has already written.
She begins to read directly off the page in a low, humorless monotone: a recounting of the circumstances that caused her to receive the damning string of F's that haunt her today. At some point, without either of us noticing, the principal gets up and leaves the room.
When there is nothing left to read, I thank B for sharing, and then I see that she is crying.
Without thinking, my voice drops and my hand goes to her forearm.
"Listen to me. What you just did is the hardest part. Going back there, looking at the parts of your past you'd rather not look at, that's the hardest part. Sharing these intimate things with a total stranger, that's the hardest part. Everything after this will be easier."
She is not looking up. The paper is crumpled in her hands.
"Remember that you are not just the person who went through that. Those experiences shaped you, and it's important to honor them, but you are also much more than that. You are a whole person, with a future as much as a past, and your story is how we're going to get people to see that."
On some level it registers that my hand is still on her arm. I leave it there.
"We're going to tell your story so that anyone who reads it will be able to see you. The way your principal sees you. The way your friends and family see you.
"We're going to connect the dots, to show not just who you were then or who you are today -- but who you want to be, the person you want to become.
"Does that sound good to you?"
B nods, wipes her eyes as the principal returns and we resume the polite distance of strangers. I leave the office with a date and time for our first session, and marvel at the ridiculous fears I had going into this: that the student wouldn't take it seriously, or that for whatever reason, we wouldn't be able to relate to each other.
Flash forward three weeks later.
B and I are seated across from each other, at a table in the library, for our third meeting. I am waiting, and she is staring down at the type on the page in front of her, not really seeing it. The corners of her mouth are turned upward in her joyful way, although I can tell she is struggling to give voice to something dark.
Then she says: "It's just, I'm not going to get in anyway. So I don't see why I should try harder."
Ah, I think, and before I can help it I am smiling. Similar to how the words came unbidden out of my mouth at our first meeting, I say:
"B, I get that fear. It's totally normal. But listen to me. One day, after you're all done with high school and college and maybe even graduate school and you've experienced some different things and you've had some time to reflect and put it all into perspective, you'll look back on this time of your life as a student and wonder why you were expected to learn certain things, and not others.
"And you may start to wonder why nobody ever mentioned one very important fact: that the stories you tell yourself, in your head, about who you are and what you're doing and what your future holds, in a very real way, create the reality you live in."
I think for a second. "Do you want to know what I tell myself every morning, when I wake up?" Her face says: sure. "I tell myself that it's going to be a great day!"
She laughs, indulging me.
"So, listen, I'm not here to tell you what to believe. If you don't want to go to college, then go ahead and tell yourself that it's impossible and why bother. But just know, in your bones, that no matter what anyone tells you, you always have a choice in what to believe about what's true for you. And exercising that choice is the smartest thing you can ever do for yourself."
B receives my rant graciously, although I can't tell how well it's landed. We continue our work on her essay that day, and for several weeks thereafter.
Two months later, in February, I call B to check in and see if she feels good about her essay. She is happy about it, but feels she could have gone deeper. She reflects on how grateful she is for my help and yet how she knows now that she could have pushed herself more.
And then - as an afterthought - she mentions that she got into 5 schools, including her top choice.
Suddenly my heart is overflowing. I exclaim about how amazing she is, tell her how proud I am, and implore her: "next time, B, do you think you could lead with that?"