The only activity I have been involved with for the entirety of my Penn career is Write On. Write On, which meets in the Kelly Writers House, is an after-school creative-writing mentoring program for middle-school students from the Henry C. Lea School, a school located only a few blocks from Penn on 47th and Locust. As a freshman I was a Write On coach (the term we use for the Penn undergrads that work with the Lea students on their writing). As a sophomore I became a head coach (the point-person for a group of Lea students I was assigned to with three other coaches), and as a junior, I became a coordinator for the program, helping plan and execute Write On’s weekly sessions. My upcoming senior year will be my second year as a coordinator, and my fourth and final year with Write On.
Write On is not only my longest-running involvement at Penn, but also my favorite. As a freshman, I was intimidated by the students, who I felt completely underqualified to teach anything to (I admit that this feeling has not completely subsided). I would timidly peek over a student’s shoulder as they showed me their journal, nodding and suggesting why don’t you expand here? or could you describe this a little bit more? In other words, general and largely unhelpful advice. As a writer myself, I should have known that it’s easy to identify what’s weak—it’s more difficult to identify how to make it stronger. I doled out this advice to all students in my group, regardless of what they were working on. My first semester of Write On, I felt anxious and out of place, too nervous to really engage with the kids lest they realize my inadequacy. The kids were—and continue to be—confident, loud, outspoken. Basically, they were the opposite of my own insecure freshman self, who was learning how to navigate a school of ten thousand after coming from a high school of one hundred and fifty.
But I stuck it out, because even though I was unsure about what I could add to Write On, the program itself seemed something special. It was just us in the Writers House on Friday afternoons, save a few staff members kind enough to make us snacks. There was something magical in the way Write On overtook the Victorian house, kids and coaches running up and down the stairs, journals and pens strewn over tables and chairs. I loved to listen to the kids share at the end of the session, their friends whooping for them when they took the podium at the front of the room, the bolder ones giving lengthy introductions, the shyer ones dipping their heads as they opened their notebooks. There is a certain energy to Write On that permeates every session—often chaotic, sometimes disorganized, but always palpable. A certain restlessness and striving that lends itself to creativity.
I look forward to my Friday every week not because it signals the weekend, but because it means that I get to spend a few hours contemplating what would happen in the sequel to Frozen, learning about what went down in this week’s episode of Empire, and dancing to Beyoncé. Write On is about writing, yes. But even more so, it’s about mentoring. When you’re thirteen, it’s easy to be shrugged off as a teenager—your opinions and feelings can be dismissed merely because of your age (how many times are we told you’re too young to understand or you’ll get it when you’re older). It’s okay if a student writes one poem but tells you all about her grandmother’s birthday or the flaws of Drake’s latest single or her dance performance last week. Writing is all about finding your voice, and you can’t find it if you’re not convinced it’s a voice worth listening to.
I have learned more from the students and coaches that participate in Write On than any teacher at Penn. Our kids are giving up their Friday afternoons to hunch over marbled composition notebooks. Our coaches are giving up their Friday afternoons to help our kids fill up their marbled composition notebooks. It is a special student, whether from Lea or from Penn, that chooses to come to Write On.