Last month, I drove an hour east of Cleveland to Ashtabula, Ohio, where I grew up and where my youngest sister, Toni, is a high school English teacher. Once a week, she also teaches a “career enrichment” class for eighth-graders, which is why I was there.
Our old high school is long gone, having merged with our rival school across town to become Lakeside High School. The campus includes middle and elementary schools. The buildings bear no resemblance to the run-down schools of my childhood. The shiny floors and vibrant hallways, however, tell only part of the story of these students’ lives.
Slightly more than 1,000 students attend the high school, and all of them qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school. Forty percent of the racially diverse senior class intends to attend college; another 10 percent hopes to attend tech schools. Roughly 35 percent of the remaining students will enter the workforce upon graduation.
If previous years’ numbers hold, 7 to 8 percent will join the military. Ohio has regularly ranked in the top 10 percent of states when it comes to the number of citizens serving their country, and Ashtabula County has always done its part. By the time I had graduated from high school in 1975, 26 of our county’s boys had died in the Vietnam War. Countless others served, many of them returning virtually unrecognizable from the teenagers they used to be. Anyone who moves away from home takes some of her town’s stories with them. This will always be one of mine.
I stood at the high school entrance with my sister as we awaited the arrival of her eighth-grade students, all of whom she would greet by name. Before they showed up, we were swarmed by high schoolers jockeying for attention — from my sister. I was the invisible bystander.
What a glorious sight, all those high school students shouting “Ms. Schultz!” as they swept in to hug her and share stories of their day. Every exchange felt like the continuation of a conversation she’d been having with them for years. My sister has never been a mother, but she has raised hundreds of children as her own.
She had required her eighth-graders to know about my writing career before my arrival, so we dived right in. So many questions in 47 minutes: How do you work through writer’s block? When do you know you have a good story? How do you work up the nerve to interview a stranger?
Ten minutes into it, I realized we were talking about more than just writing. We were exploring what it means to live in a small town with big dreams pounding in our hearts.
Have I ever felt lonely as a writer?
Are people surprised that I came from Ashtabula?
How did I find the confidence to believe that people everywhere would care about the writing of a girl from nowhere?
With that question, I took a deep breath, buying time to make clear that our blue-collar roots are our advantage, not our liability.
We know how most Americans live, I told them. We know what it means to feel invisible to those in power, and we know that not all of the people we come from are ignorant and racist and mean. We know from the labor of our parents’ hands that education isn’t the only road to wisdom and that privilege is no substitute for character.
We know all of this, I told them, and it’s up to us to make sure others know it, too. One story at a time.
Through all of the 47 minutes of class, my sister sat quietly in front of a wall she had covered with hundreds of students’ photos. She was beaming, and she was the picture of my mother. The same tilted head and dewy eyes, the same face of a woman determined that under her watch, her children will learn how to fly.