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Confidence gets you to the 73rd draft

Posted on Friday, March 2nd, 2012.

StoryCorps Door-to-Door gathered interviews for the National Teachers Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Between encounters with green chili for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Facilitator Mitra Bonshahi and I recorded stories about New Mexicans’ experiences with education in preparation for Albuquerque’s Teacher Town Hall event. For two days, KNME, Albuquerque’s public TV station, played host to a rotating cast of teachers and students. After their StoryCorps interviews, participants also had the opportunity to record video reflections on their interviews with youth radio station Generation Justice.

Michelle Otero (R) and Alan Marks (L)

KNME bustled with the sounds of students reuniting with former teachers, connecting with fellow students, and catching up on assignments and the latest school gossip with teachers they see every day. But Michelle Otero and Alan Marks’ reunion was more relaxed than many of the others I witnessed.

The two have known each other over 20 years, since Michelle was a high school student who Alan helped apply to colleges. As a Latina from an area where most people did not go to college, Michelle assumed her success in high school would have colleges knocking down her door with scholarships. However, this was not the case.

Alan was drawn to Michelle because while she was bright, she “wouldn’t know enough to be intimidated” by an elite college. So, he explained to Michelle that she would have to seek out schools and scholarships for herself and was her taskmaster as she worked to complete college applications. Unlike her other teachers, Michelle remembers, Alan was interested not only in her classroom activities but also in her dreams and ambitions.

But a few days before the January 1 application deadline, Michelle still hadn’t completed her applications, so she visited Alan’s mother’s house in El Paso, Texas, where he encouraged her to write her application essays on a computer; Michelle had never composed on a computer or even a typewriter. Recalling the workspace Alan provided for her, Michelle says, “Now I remember it as this windowless room – it probably wasn’t really – with this large monitor and a keyboard. And you said, ‘Just go ahead and work here.'”

Michelle started out by handwriting everything, then typing it on the computer, and printing out what she had written; she later edited herself on paper. By the end of the day, Michelle was comfortable working on the computer alone. “I knew that you had to do it your own way,” Alan said, “but it was really great how by the end of the day, you had practically thrown your notebook away.”

The ease of composition helped Michelle realize she had a unique story to tell and gave her confidence in that story. Michelle ended up attending Harvard University, and now that she’s a professional writer, she goes back to her experience with college applications whenever she’s frustrated. Her memories of this day remind her that you can never predict where you’ll end up when you begin to write, “but you still have to write seventy-two drafts to get to the seventy-third that’s worth sharing with other people.”

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