Now that most of the leaves have fallen, fleeing a winter that can’t quite decide when it will come, I have a story about imaginary leaves that remain, and caterpillars and UFOs, and third-grade authors whose creative minds soar to great heights (and cloud-printed paper).
Like so many others, I came to Iowa City to write. I heard others say over and over again that they’d come to be part of a community of writers, but why stop at community “of writers”? I wanted to use writing to build community for anyone. In a neighborhood near my apartment, I began to befriend families who had come to Iowa City for reasons entirely different than mine: asylum, educational opportunities for children, crisis in their native countries or cities. These families spoke different languages, and from the youngest member to the oldest, they were all working hard to learn so many things: a new language, a new culture, how to turn a new place into home.
This was where I wanted to write, with the children of Pheasant Ridge, and the Iowa Youth Writing Project gave me that opportunity this semester.
Along with a team of IYWP volunteers, I started writing once a week with third graders in the after-school program at the Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center, while other volunteers worked with kindergarteners. Each week, a volunteer named Paige and I worked one-on-one with a small number of third graders on their own creative projects in a quiet area of the Center. This was a time carved out for them with their ages and interests in mind—usually they participate in programming with 15-20 kindergarteners. The students come from all different backgrounds, and our time with them sometimes reflected the tenuous nature of building relationships there. When a new student named Kevyn joined us the first week of October, we were down to two third graders. For these young writers, family circumstances can change suddenly, making it necessary for them to leave the after-school program.
No matter their age, all the students love an opportunity to go outside. On Kevyn’s first day, we did a writing exercise about leaves. We led kindergarteners and third graders outside to choose one leaf to write about: they could describe what it looked like, or tell a story about where it had come from. We watched a mad rush of little feet crunching leaves as fast as little hands collected them. Kevyn found a big, red leaf, then reached down for something else. He held his arm out to look at his new discovery, a small fuzzy weed. He yelled, “It looks like a caterpillar!”
Back inside, we set out the writing supplies. Paige had brought in sky-blue paper, printed with clouds. Kevyn’s eyes lit up, and as soon as he had a pencil and some cloud paper in front of him, he started to write. He began his first line at the very bottom of the page: “I found a caterpillar that came from a butterfly–” and ran out of space. We talked a minute about how caterpillars crawl and how words can crawl. Suddenly, Kevyn’s words found all sorts of room. He wrote them climbing up, he wrote them backwards, he wrote them stacked on top of each other. He wrote a story about a butterfly with a hurt wing, and a magic leaf that comes to its rescue.
A few weeks later, Kevyn also left the program. We missed his energy and ability to get a spark of inspiration from things that others (including me) overlook. But when we had our last writing session at the end of November, Kevyn was back, asking about cloud paper and bursting with ideas about UFOs and the roller coasters they happen to land on. I’m glad we were there when he returned, to pick up where we left off. For Kevyn, a pattern had emerged: the sky isn’t the limit, it’s the setting.
Emily Seiple is a senior at the University of Iowa, studying English and Creative Writing. For more of her reflections on outreach, community, writing, and the Iowa Youth Writing Project, read her recent Iowa Now piece here.