“Volunteer Heroes” by Tara Armstrong

As what feels like a super-stellar semester draws to a close, my expectations remain open, though I can’t say I started my first semester this way. My first time as an undergrad here at the U of I was back in 2005 when I became an English major. I was dual enrolled at Kirkwood too (trying to finish my AA in Liberal Arts), and—like most unsung heroes—I was existing in two different worlds, wondering if either noticed.
If you’d have asked me my freshman year of high school what I wanted to be, or do with my life, I would have shrugged my shoulders attempting to change the subject to deflect from voicing any of my desires. I had just lost my father to the darkest villain I’d ever encountered, Male Breast Cancer. (Yes, that’s right, men get breast cancer too.) My father, however, wasn’t the stereotypical superhero that most cliché little girls have. He had super strength, but his powers were often used for evil over good, despite the fact that he was a minister. His initials may have been “SM,” but it wasn’t short for Super Man. It was Sinister Minister. Both were potentially lethal, and I was often their target.
I didn’t really dream of superheroes. I only knew everyday evils. It was hard to think of what true heroes would be like. I wasn’t looking to be rescued, just spared. I spent most of my youth quietly trying to go unnoticed, fearful of the villains I lived with, as anything could set them off. That said, being unable to use your voice for so long often leaves you without one, causing you to feel trapped between two worlds—much like the Little Mermaid (and not the Disney version, either). So, when my dad lost his epic battle with Male Breast Cancer, I was lost too. I was still unsure which was worse. Both terrified me, and some might say that maybe Male Breast Cancer saved me from my dad, but all I knew was that my voice was buried—deep, like my dad, against his will. Without them, I was left to the new harsh hallways of high school. I was a freshman, but an old soul. Living in a small town, the likelihood of a superhero showing up to help was zero. My standard of living was stuck on “survive,” as I spent the first semester sobbing behind bathroom stall doors. You can imagine my surprise the day I heard a knock. I was startled by its firm softness.
When I answered it, my Spanish teacher stood there, arms crossed, in a super bright red dress. It dangled at mid-calf like a cape would. She quickly realized I wasn’t a delinquent, but a teen in distress. Her arms opened, whisking me up and away to her secret Spanish sanctuary. Super Señora revealed to me that my life no longer had to be full of fear because she was now here—for me. It was hard to use my voice after being afraid to for so long, so she gave me a purple pen to write it out. In doing so, she exhumed my voice and freed me from my father’s death grip. She’d heard what no one else had, and she dared to care because she believed my story needed to be shared. I wanted to be like her, an unlikely superhero that could change someone’s world, or maybe their community. Super Señora suggested I might be able to save others by sharing my story and teaching them how to rescue themselves through writing, as she’d taught me.
Thirteen years have passed; I’ve been writing ever since but unsure of how to reach those in need. I finished my BA in English back in 2007, but I was still searching for a community in which I felt I could truly belong. Until this semester, when I returned as a ‘new’ student to the Certificate in Writing program, my definition of community was just a place where people dwell. Perhaps this was the issue? I was skeptical but hopeful, so I enrolled in Writing with Purpose, in hopes that maybe I could finally find mine. Even after all these years, I still wanted to be the difference to someone the way Super Señora had been with me, but I was still lacking a community to save.
Enter Dora Malech, my Writing with Purpose professor (an Incognito Writing Super Hero). Her super powers: establishing communities–in ‘projects’ with purposeful possibilities galore. FINALLY, someone who knows where I can find a community so that I can earn my cape! Then there was the catch; our assignment was to build our own community by going out and teaching creative writing to youth. ZAP!  My hopes were suddenly in need of a different hero, maybe Bob the Builder? I panicked, but then realized my classmates were in the same frenzy. Those of us interested in working with lower-income youth banded together. Quickly becoming one another’s sidekicks, we recognized that we were in this together. I realized, I suddenly had purpose, not just to write, but to create a community that I could teach to write! So, with my stellar sidekicks, Stasia, Leah and Annie, we built a sense of community by modeling what we wanted to see.
The first assignment I gave was to create your ideal superhero. I asked the kids to think about the superpowers their heroes would have. What was their name? What kind of world did they live in? Who were the villains they fought and why? Were there only villains in their world, or only heroes? Maybe villains were the only form of super beings they’d known, which was the point to my lesson. I wanted to bring about the idea that they, too, no matter their struggles, have had a superhero in them this whole time, one with a story and a purpose.
The story that stood out to me most was one about a character named Rainbow Puff. She wasn’t afraid to live in color. She made her world a brighter place where it was safe to shine and express yourself. Rainbow Puff reminded me of Super Señora and that magical purple pen. She showed me that while life is often presented in black and white (especially in writing), it doesn’t have to be, which is why, 13 years later I still prefer to write in color. Life, much like creative writing, is about seeing and embracing the colliding scope of colors that live in between the extremes.
Dora, AKA, Professor Purpose, helped me create a community of little heroes like Rainbow Puff, who taught me that a community isn’t just a place to dwell. A community is a mystical place that lives within us. It can be created, it can help you create, it can teach and bring all the colors of the rainbow together to shine in the night like a Bat-signal, to locate the lost. Community is a secret lair. It’s hidden within us and among us. And Community, like our unlikely incognito superhero, Dora Malech, gave this superhero (me) her first successful teaching quest, thusly saving me and my fellow classmates from what could have been just another unremarkable semester. In doing so, she also helped me realize that teaching creative writing to under-privileged kids has always been my purpose—and in my power this whole time.
Tara Armstrong (second from left) and her super co-volunteer Leah Thiessen (far left) follow along in their chapbooks as the young writers with whom they worked all semester share their super-stories and their superpowers (modeled by the IYWP volunteers) of writing, reading, listening, respect, and creativity.
Tara Armstrong (second from left) and her super co-volunteer Leah Thiessen (far left) follow along in their chapbooks as the young writers with whom they worked all semester share their super-stories and their superpowers (modeled by the IYWP volunteers) of writing, reading, listening, respect, and creativity.
Tara Armstrong (center) smiles at the December 5th, 2012 IYWP volunteer appreciation event with (from left to right) Paige Pennigar, Dora Malech, Skylar Alexander, and Emily Seiple.
Tara Armstrong (center) smiles at the December 5th, 2012 IYWP volunteer appreciation event with (from left to right) Paige Pennigar, Dora Malech, Skylar Alexander, and Emily Seiple.
Tara Armstrong’s not one to settle for a plain-vanilla biographical note:

Tara Armstrong’s (grim) fairytale began in 1983; she grew up in Columbus Junction, Iowa. There she she spent her youth serving as a challenge to most everyone’s balance, defying and questioning the norms of everyone else. After graduating from Columbus Community High School in 2002, she moved to Iowa City to start a new chapter in her ‘never-ending story’ of education. Tara was the first person in her family to go to college. She received her BA in English from the University of Iowa in 2007. Immediately after, she entered a full-time job that, from 9-5, forced her to work in a box that she’d always been known to think outside of. Realizing she wasn’t making the difference she wanted to be, she went back to school—times two. Tara is now happily working as a paraeducator with amazing BD [Behavior Disorder] high schoolers. Every day she’s inspired by her students and coworkers to be come a better member of the City High School community (CHS, “the school that leads”). They help remind her that some people are born to think outside of the box, and that’s how people learn to lead. Tara is also currently working on becoming a certified free thinker, as she is currently enrolled in the U of I’s new Certificate in Writing Program—where she continues her “ever after” educational quest, in search of serving her purpose by becoming a Creative Writing Teacher and maybe finally finding her Once Upon a Time. 

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