Words and dreams can set the caged bird free

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By Anushka Anastasia Solomon

“There is nothing like dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.”
­— Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables”

Working at the Community College of Denver as a writing tutor, I encounter the world in one room. One morning brings in a talented student from Sudan, a tattooed American on parole, an adult African-American who consciously resists writing in his authentic voice, a Chicana who has experienced religious persecution by a Catholic priest. In the afternoon, a proficient Native American who writes abstract lyrical prose, an Ethiopian who imagines utopian American life, an idealistic new young American from Uzbekistan, a Mexican with the hard-won ubiquitous permanent residency card, an African assigned to analyze a Coors Light commercial, and numerous young Americans determined to better their lives. The Writing Center is a special place.
I have worked here a month now. Already, I am regaining my flagging faith in this, my adopted nation, America. Our mission here is to be a support staff, to assist and equip with tools the one who wields the pen. I cannot agree with every writer’s point of view — neither my professional obligations nor my experiences allow it. But we share common dreams.
One African-American student passionately exclaims that he is in college to gain an education so he does not spend the rest of his life flipping burgers at McDonald’s. He is angry at racial profiling, distressed that even after making a commitment to change his life, he is beleagured by a past that includes prison.
“I am stopped by the police because of how I look. It is my color skin. They stop me all the time. When I get a job and they do a background check, I lose the job. They let me go. No one wants to hire an ex-convict,” he fumes. We listen. He looks at us. We do not look away. We cannot. His voice is too compelling.
“I want my sons to have a better future. I want to own my own business. I do not want to end up a statistic,” he articulates. A strange thing happens then. He goes away and writes a perfect paragraph. His dream is already gaining its flesh and frame. I cannot pretend that his dream will be easily attained, but I believe that tomorrow will come for him, brighter than the darkness amid which the dream was conceived.
“You should watch the movie ‘Les Miserables,’ ” one student writing a cause-and-effect essay exhorts. “It is about redemption. It is about how Jean Valdez real prison begins after his release,” he says in somewhat choppy English. Another student comes here and wants a second opinion on her essay. “I am doing this for myself,” she says. Hers is the story of a young girl who does not want to be like her mother, given to addiction. An addiction counselor works on a descriptive essay about a young American born into homelessness. “This boy deserves a home. It is not right,” he writes.
A Mexican describes trekking through the desert, encountering immigration authorities who “put him on hold,” and how “life comes back” to his body when he is released, and finally the complexity of his homecoming to America and Mexico. He struggles to ingest intricate immigration law and cite it correctly. As he works on his assignment, which is to remember an event, he strives to record the impact of law on self, culture and community. “I want to remember it correctly,” he says, reaching into his pocket to show me his green card. It is not necessary, I motion. He nods, and shrugs in a self-deprecating way, and continues speaking, “This is just a rough draft. The professor said we will go over it together and he will help me.”
How we remember, what we remember, and how we write impact our future. At the Writing Center, students walk in ablaze with the glory of their dreams. “Are you a tutor?” a woman asks as I leave the center. “Yes,” I reply. “Good, we need all the help we can get,” she smiles.
There are more experienced tutors I shadow at CCD. These more-seasoned tutors guide students to own the English language, to possess it like currency and then to use it as their own. I like the Writing Center; it sets the caged bird free. I share its vision to throw open the doors and windows through which ideas might enter and dreams ne born. “Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow,” Victor Hugo seems to whisper as I tutor. The message is as much for me as for my students.

Anushka Anastasia Solomon, with a B.A. in education/creative writing, is an alumna of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and is an internationally recognized poet.