As you walk into the Reach for the Future after-school classroom, it is not hard to notice how thankful the Reach students have become for the opportunity they have been given – college tuition upon high school graduation.
Beyond the colorful bookshelves, worn tables and chairs, and the controlled chaos of students working together to solve a difficult geometry problem, my desk sits in the back corner, hardly noticeable. Student artwork and letters cover the front and sides of the desk. Some art glows with bright flowers and hearts; other messages are simply understated. They all reflect the same message: Thank you.
I did not expect the students as second graders to understand the magnitude of the gift they had been given. At our induction ceremony in 2008, the excitement surrounding the man with the TV camera overshadowed the actual reason for the celebration. Several students jumped at the opportunity to be interviewed. One student was asked, “What college would you like to go to when you graduate from high school?” Beaming, he replied, “Gonzaga Anniversary.”
Later that evening we inducted the students by placing a golden key around their neck. The message on the key: “Reach for the Future, the key to your success.” As we gave out these keys we talked about how they open many doors for the students. Afterwards, one boy came to me and asked, “So, what door to the college does this key open?” His confusion made sense. Our students were only seven years old.
Now they are 10. As our students mature they are learning that Reach for the Future is less about the excitement over media attention, and more about the opportunity awaiting them after they walk across the high school stage. With this realization comes appreciation, which they have begun to express in a variety of ways.
One day this year I opened the door to our classroom at the Boys and Girls Club and nearly tripped on a letter that had my name drawn in big black and red letters with a neon pink background. On the inside a rainbow of colors drowned the page, with the words, “Thank you for every day you come and teach us and help us make it to college. And thank you for giving us this big chance in life.”
Gratitude hasn’t only been expressed in their thoughtful words or beautiful pictures. Their appreciation comes in the most subtle gestures. One student chooses to hug me or a volunteer after class everyday even though he got in trouble. Another wants to stay after class to finish the homework packet, despite having more fun activities to participate in at the Boys and Girls’ Club. Then, there is the student who, for the first two years of the program, stormed out of our classroom daily refusing to participate. He eventually started showing up to Reach with a smile on his face, inquiring about how to become a student of the month. And my favorite, the student who delicately whispers to a volunteer,” Thanks for helping me with reading, my scores went up.”
Their thoughtful letters and genuine gestures inspire me daily. Of course, it is wonderful to see test scores and grades improving. But what truly warms my heart is witnessing these students gain knowledge of important life lessons, especially learning to show gratitude. I believe it is through these lessons that success will follow in all other aspects of their lives.
(Editor’s note: As project coordinator for Reach for the Future, Lauren Garske’s work includes organizing tutoring, mentoring, coordinating volunteers for the program, lunch buddies, and other activities. Ultimately, she will help the Reach students with college and career planning.)