A Flash of Hope


I thought the timing was right for this first place short story.

The news too often is filled with suicides, gang wars and school shootings. Most of us feel helpless to make a change. But I believe it all begins with family.

We teach children values and morals through our words and actions. Bullying, rejection and hurtful words last a lifetime. But, so do acceptance, friendship and love.

I hope that no matter where you are in this world, you show compassion for others by your words and actions. You never know the crosses they carry or how your words will affect them.

I invite you to share your thoughts and stories so that we can join hands in making this school year a great experience for all of our future leaders.

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A Flash of Hope

Lakeisha cursed to herself as she gripped the blank notebook with one hand while using the other to push a divergent black curl out of her face. The January winds whipped furiously as she waited for the bus to arrive. The English assignment, due Friday, wore on her mind. Normally, she’d be finished by the time she got home from school. Not this time. For two days she’d stared at the paper, the words refusing to bleed from her pen.

“What is your dream?” Ms. Lowery made it sound as if every student lived a normal life, complete with options and the financial support to achieve them. “College? Career? Travel? Write what you want to happen Did she have any idea what my life is like? NO! The question seemed cruel to the new transfer student.

I have no dreams. Lakeisha lived in the real world, filled with responsibilities and hardships, drugs and booze, bill collectors and angry people. Her days left no room for dreams. With a mother imprisoned for selling drugs and a father killed when she was five, the chance of having a successful career was improbable. College was out of the question. A high school education, if she were lucky enough to finish the year, would get her a minimum wage job.

Many of her classmates had applied to numerous colleges and waited anxiously to hear from each. Her goals? The first, survival, avoiding gang fights that erupted into gun battles at any given time. Walking from the bus stop to her front door involved risk. The second, keeping the electricity on. Dreams? How am I supposed to write about such foolishness?

There had been much controversy between the districts when the decision was made to transfer students from failing inner city schools to academically successful ones in affluent neighborhoods. At first, Lakeisha felt a tinge of excitement, holding out hope that she’d make new friends and learn useful skills. Hope faded quickly during the first week. The long commute added more stress to her day and limited the hours she could work.

Cliques of girls that didn’t look like her, didn’t speak like her, and didn’t dress like her, whispered and giggled as she walked alone through the long hallways. Even the boys said lewd and offensive things, much like those in her old school, just in hushed voices.

Lakeisha knew why she’d been unable to complete the assignment. She wanted to tell the truth, not lie or pretend her future held magnificent opportunities. Dreams required more than just imagination. She wanted to respond to the snickers as they pointed to the same pair of shoes she wore every day. Her threads came from nearby dumpsters or Goodwill, hardly the place to find a dress for the upcoming prom.

It hurt to watch the students snub their noses at lunch menus and throw away perfectly good trays of food, knowing how many times she’d stood in soup lines waiting for a meal. Their spoiled, over-indulgent lifestyles sickened her. The anger boiled inside her head as she squeezed her pen. Suddenly, the words spilled across the paper. One page filled, she flipped the notebook and began another without pausing. The furor didn’t’ stop until ink seeped to the edges of a dozen pages.

With trembling hands, Lakeisha slammed the notebook closed, pressed it against her chest and glanced around to reassure herself of the private moment. The corners of her lips turned upward in acknowledgement of her decision. I’m done! And I’m going to turn this in, no matter the consequences.

Sleep evaded Lakeisha as she tossed and turned in bed, bits and pieces of her essay inching through the protective wall that normally kept her worries at bay. Did I share too much? What if I have to read it out loud? Would it be worse than it already is? Fear rose in her throat and she jumped up from the bed. I should rewrite it.

She picked up the spiral-bound notebook and studied the cover that was filled with her favorite words. Words like dauntless, temerity, indomitable. Words never spoken in the world she lived in, but so inspirational to Lakeisha. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, a quote from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

The frantic doubt that had unnerved her earlier settled down to a vibration. She placed the unopened notebook on top of her coat, convinced the words had needed to be written and now they must be heard. I’ll be a voice for others.

***

Lakeisha held the papers tightly on the twenty mile ride to school. Silently, she repeated her conviction. I have a voice. I can make a difference. It took hold and by the time the bus arrived at school, she held her head a little higher than normal and smiled as she strode down the busy hallway.

“Sorry for the thumbprint, Ms. Lowery.” Lakeisha mumbled as she laid the assignment on the paper-free desk, aware the rest of the class had submitted their stories electronically, not scribbled on lined paper.

“Don’t worry about it.” The teacher smiled as she accepted the paper and stuck it in her drawer, out of sight. “They’re still trying to get a computer for you. Hopefully, soon.”

Her words rang like an empty promise, one she’d heard for months. I’ll be gone before it gets here.

The essay lingered in the back of her mind the rest of the day and throughout the weekend. Her emotions rode the wave from excitement to fear. One minute proud of her courage. Then next, kicking herself for lowering the wall. Upon arrival in English class on Monday, Lakeisha was greeted by Ms. Lowery.

“Before you take your seat, the principal would like to speak to you.”

“Mr. Hackmann? Why? I didn’t do anything!” The announcement rattled in her brain. Oh, Crap. My essay. They’re going to send me back to my old school.

“You can put your books down first.” Ms. Lowery looked at the blackboard as she spoke.

Lakeisha left the room on trembling legs, stopping at the water fountain to sooth her parched throat. A bright light shined on the metal object, her mouth agape at the brilliance as she searched for the source in the windowless hall. Suddenly, the place she’d dreaded walking down every day took on a significance she’d not previously considered. My ancestors were never allowed to walk this hall, much less quench their thirst from this fountain.

The unexpected affirmation filled her with renewed courage. Changes were made by brave people who dared to speak up. I have a voice. I can make a difference. She repeated the mantra as she walked through Mr. Hackmann’s office door.

“Good morning, Ms. Washington. Please have a seat.” The tall, gray-haired man gestured toward a round table aside his massive oak desk. He reached for a file folder and joined her. “How are you today?”

“I was fine until I got called to see you. What did I do?” Lakeisha’s voice sharp, but respectful.

“I understand you wrote this essay.” He passed the lined papers to Lakeisha as he spoke.

“Yes, sir. I did.” Lakeisha straightened her back and look directly at Mr. Hackmann, prepared to defend her assignment.

“Ms. Lowery was kind enough to share your story with me and my staff.”

“And?” Her question blurted out more defensively than she’d intended.

“Your words stung. Painfully.” He furrowed his brows and shook his head side to side, looking down at the floor. “I’ve always prided myself on being in tune with my students.”

Lakeisha stirred in her chair, unsure how to respond.

The man drew in a long breath that filled his chest, then looked at Lakeisha with moist eyes. “I’m sorry. I was wrong. So very wrong.” He choked as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes. “You have shown me how much I have to learn, how much we all have to learn.”

“You’re not mad at me?” Lakeisha tucked a curl behind her ear and leaned forward.

“Of course not, Ms. Washington. You were brave enough to share intimate details of your life and by doing so, you educated me and my staff in more ways than reading a thousand books. I want to ask a favor of you.”

“A favor of me? What could I possibly do for you?”

“Share your story with the entire school. Every teacher and student needs to hear what you have to say.” Mr. Hackmann raised a brow and waited for her response.

Lakeisha paused, her eyes flashed toward the door. “Share with everyone? Do you really think that’s a good idea? I’m not very popular with my classmates.”

“Teenagers can be hurtful, but I’ve seen the same students rally to support injustice when an issue is brought to their attention. Everyone needs a reminder of the things we take for granted. Your essay delivers a lesson they won’t soon forget. I hope you will give them a chance to show you.

***

The gymnasium buzzed with questions regarding the school assembly.

“So what’s the assembly for?”

“Just Black History Month. Boring.”

A voice loud enough to be hears across the room drew Lakeisha’s attention.

“What she’s doing up there?” One of the students glared at Lakeisha who sat on a folding chair a short distance from the stage.

You’re not going to rattle me today. This is too important. Lakeisha directed her attention to the hundreds of students taking their seats. Ms. Lowery worked her way through the crowd and settled into the chair next to her, gently touching her arm with a reassuring nod.

Mr. Hackmann called Lakeisha to the podium. She stepped forward, forcing her shoulders back and raising her chin.

She inhaled slowly, repeating her mantra in silence then began. “I’m Lakeisha…Jackson…a transfer student from Roosevelt High.” She glanced down at the ink filled pages for reassurance, then raised her head and continued. “I’ve been asked to share my story with you today.” Quiet murmurs buzzed the room.

“More than 50 years ago Dr. King addressed the sacred obligations of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in his speech, I Have a Dream. His words inspired significant changes, changes that I’m privileged to experience today, just by being in this school.” Lakeisha paused, searching the room for reactions. “He also spoke of the ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism.’ I didn’t understand what he meant until recently.

“He was saying that while America has made tremendous strides, there‘s more work to be done. Ms. Lowery assigned an essay, ‘What is your dream?’ I’ve been asked to share my response. This is what I wrote.” Lakeisha spoke slowly, deliberately as she read her essay, allowing the words time to penetrate. When she finished, Julie, the cheer leading squad captain, stood and clapped slowly. Joshua, a football quarterback followed, then another and another. Soon the entire audience joinrf in a deafening applause.

Mr. Hackmann stepped to Lakeisha’s side, a smile spread across his face. In a hushed voice, easily drowned out by the cheers, he said, “Thank you for taking the risk.” He nodded toward the assembly that continued to cheer. “I think you’ve made some new friends. Can you forgive our ignorance?”

“I can do that.” Lakeisha stepped away from the podium, moving toward her seat.

The principal stopped her and motioned to the students to sit. “Ms. Washington, we are grateful for the wisdom you’ve shared with us today. Ms. Lowery has something for you.”

Her teacher came forward carrying a package. “Lakeisha, this laptop is a small token of our appreciation for your eloquent presentation. I think I speak for the entire school in saying you’ve touched our lives in ways that will continue for years to come. Thank you.”

Lakeisha’s eyes widened and a smile spread across her face as she accepted the gift. “Thanks.” The room exploded in another round of applause. Maybe I did make a difference.

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