Mentoring the Next Generation of Writers
Girls Write Now, in the midst of its annual CHAPTERS readings now in New York City, sponsors pairings that can seem at first surprising via its afterschool arts program.
On the surface, Alice Sheba and Paldon Dolma don’t seem to have much in common. Alice is 87, Jewish, and a born-and-bred New Yorker; Paldon is 17, a Buddhist, and from Tibet. Yet, as they talk intently, their heads bent over some sheets of paper on a tiny table in a New York City Barnes and Noble bookstore, one can see they are completely comfortable with each other.
Alice is Paldon’s mentor in a unique afterschool arts program for high school girls who aspire to be writers. Girls Write Now pairs girls in underserved neighborhoods of New York City with professional women writers who work with them on a weekly basis to draft and edit their projects. Alice and Paldon hit it off immediately at an initial “match-up” orientation once Alice learned that Paldon is from Tibet and that they share a concern for the fate of Tibetan people living under Chinese control. Back in the 1950s, she has told Paldon, she joined protests against the Chinese invasion of Tibet, leading to the forced exile of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government. Paldon has spent hours every week passing out pamphlets, gathering signatures, and explaining the plight of Tibetans outside the United Nations.
Fearing for their safety and wanting a better future for their children, Paldon’s parents sent her and her older brother to live with an uncle in India when she was only seven years old. Five years later, the uncle brought the two children to New York, and an aunt sponsored them for political asylum. Although she had begun to learn English in India, at first Paldon felt like a misfit. She had great difficulty understanding American English and “the students were disobedient, challenging teachers, misbehaving in inappropriate ways such as using vulgar language.” She looked different in her “helmet haircut” and unstylish clothes.
Alice understands about feeling like an outsider. Although born in New York, she has told Paldon, her Russian-Jewish mother thought European values were superior to American. And because her parents only spoke Yiddish at home, Alice knew no English when she started school. Alice was also no stranger to oppression: her father’s entire family was killed in Poland during the Holocaust, and their pictures and histories were a vivid part of her childhood.
Similar in some ways but worlds and decades apart in others, Paldon and Alice came closer together during one of their weekly mentoring sessions when Paldon told Alice she was reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in her English class. Alice told Paldon that when the Dalai Lama visited the United States, he met with leaders from the Jewish community, who advised him to continue the Tibetan Buddhist practice and culture while in exile. She suggested that Paldon write a letter to Wiesel. The result, a passionate essay pleading for Wiesel to take up the Dalai Lama’s cause based on his own compassion as a Holocaust survivor, incorporates Paldon’s deep knowledge of Tibetan history and concern for its future.
“To be silent is to be a partner in evil,” Alice says to Paldon. And Paldon writes to Wiesel, “In your Nobel Prize speech in 1986, you stated ‘Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’” (Paldon has also appealed to President Barack Obama via a YouTube video.)
The pair has been working together for six months. At their weekly writing sessions, held close to Alice’s apartment, Alice urges Paldon to revise, revise, revise—advice that Paldon has come to appreciate. Alice also invited Paldon to see the movie “Lincoln,” and Paldon invited Alice to see a documentary about a very young Tibetan boy who left his family to live in India, much as she herself did. The two plan to continue their formal mentorship through Paldon’s senior year and, more informally, beyond. Students who qualify for Girls Write Now as freshmen often have the same mentor during their entire high school years.
In the short term, Alice is encouraging Paldon to apply to the Sarah Lawrence summer writing program. Next year, she will help Paldon through the college essay process. (Girls Write Now gets 100 percent of its seniors into college). Paldon’s long-term goal since joining: to become an investigative reporter focusing on human rights. Her aunt tells her “you can’t just be an activist; you need knowledge behind what you say.” But her aunt, a registered nurse who emigrated from Tibet and put herself through college, also tells her a nursing career might provide more stability.
Coming up very soon, a fact that makes Paldon nervous, is a public reading. During the four months of spring, Girls Write Now presents a series of widely publicized readings sponsored by major publishing houses to showcase the best of the students' work. The final CHAPTERS event, also serves as the year’s “graduation,” and the work is published in an anthology. To an audience of more than 200, Paldon and Alice will read their creation, an essay with the provocative title “No One Can Get Diarrhea.” Written in alternating paragraphs, it contrasts Paldon’s current household, even more crowded since the arrival of new relatives, with Alice’s memories of her more spacious and quieter childhood home. It demonstrates how much they have learned to appreciate the differences and similarities in each of their cultures.
By the time these public readings take place, the girls have produced a portfolio of varied writings, pursuing an extremely rigorous curriculum that includes genre workshops in fiction, memoir, screen- or playwriting and journalism, as well as, more recently, “dorkshops” (digital media-based writing workshops). Now in its fifteenth year, Girls Write Now has been recognized twice by the White House as one of the top afterschool arts programs in the country. Most of its volunteer mentors are quite a bit younger than Alice, though all are accomplished professional writers. Paldon’s memoir about leaving Tibet and coming to the United States, “Plunged into the Wonders of the World,” went through many drafts before being submitted for a Scholastic Art and Writing Award. (Girls Write Now has a great track record for these awards, its students having won more than 100 since 2006.)
“Alice has taught me courage, to believe in myself, to fight for what I want,” Paldon says. “Paldon added a dimension to my life,” says Alice. “I’m the mother of five grown children, who live geographically far apart. To be of use to a younger person who can absorb, appreciate, and transform the writing is a wonderful feeling.”
Paldon has traveled further, both in distance and in culture, than most other young women. It is not unusual for her to get up at 4 am to work on her journal or drafts of her writing. On top of her Tibet activism, she also volunteers once a week helping visually impaired seniors in their homes. Her determination is inspirational. She is lucky to have found Girls Write Now, which nourishes her talents and her self-confidence to pursue her goals.
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