Junior Rachel Murray usually sat in row four, two seats from the right aisle, in our fall section of the relatively large Communication and Citizenship class. In the midst of an intense finals-week, exam-giving, essay-grading tsunami, Rachel’s final essay in COJO 111 caused our trio-professor team to collectively stop for a moment and utter something to the tune of “Wow. That’s pretty neat.”
Rachel’s essay, excerpted below, easily exceeded our expectations on integration and sense-making about course readings, theories and concepts. But content isn’t what bumped up the pretty-neat, professors-are-humans-too meter; rather, it was that something, altogether multilayered and unpredictably raw and human about our elaborate-at-times and yet simple-in-many-ways collaboration with the 9th graders at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which serves some of the Twin Cities’ most underserved youth. That something, this time, was the unexpected friendship between two unlikely souls, coupled with serendipitous timing and innocence, each recognized and then articulated by the junior, row four, from Shoreview, Minnesota.
Rachel’s essay is of a life lost and a friendship gained – of stereotypes extinguished and a better sense of life (and self) obtained.
Rachel’s essay, specifically, is about the December week when she lost her friend Mark Langdon and, simultaneously, how her newly forged friendship with Cristo Rey’s Ce’shady (it’s a nickname, and an interesting part of her story!) served as a turning point in her grieving.
Rachel’s essay, consequentially, reminds me that learning experiences in college (life) are always (forever) a complex (yep – usually messy) combination of expanding the mind, heart and soul. I know, right? Significant learning: it’s grand and it’s usually painful, but it’s worth it.
Here are the excerpts from Rachel’s essay:
The Friendship of Rachel and Ce'Shady
I never thought I could have anything in common with a 14-year-old, sassy multi-racial girl from East St. Paul. Yet after spending time every Tuesday and Thursday for a month with Cierra from Cristo Rey, I now have a new and surprisingly deep friendship.
I am quite uncultured and I know it. My family goes hiking at Glacier National Park for a relaxing vacation, I shop at J.Crew, eat salad and listen to Taylor Swift on repeat. Cierra, on the other hand, takes mirror pictures with her cell phone in just a swimsuit, asked me to call her “Ce'Shady,” uses slang words like “finna,” claims to be part of the “trill lyfe” and has called me “ratchet” (as a term of endearment) on more than one occasion.
Spending my childhood in the suburbs with parents who (lovingly) sheltered me from the terrors of “real” life was enjoyable. However, my family’s lifestyle did not prepare me for living and interacting in other worlds, especially Cierra’s. And her upbringing was sheltered in a way as well, because she had trouble interacting in my “real” world. We both fit the stereotypes quite perfectly, and we both hardcore judged each other as we were paired up for this service-learning project. …
Because I am quite sheltered, I had no idea what to expect from the students at the school in “midtown” Twin Cities (south Minneapolis), aside from my presumptions that it would be comparable to what I had seen on MTV and VH1. Those assumptions, which were so embarrassingly wrong, proved to be dangerous; I judged Cierra before I even met her. Initially, I assumed she was a bratty teenager with an iPhone, so I did not make much effort to befriend her. Yes, we engaged in dialogue, but it did not become meaningful until she noticed a change in my behavior one Tuesday. ...
It was on our last day together that Cierra politely questioned my unusual silence. I decided to tell her about the recent death of St. Thomas student Mark Langdon and explained how I had worked with Mark all summer, 40 hours a week, in the Development Office.
I told her how my heart was beyond sad for him and his family. After I spent the entire weekend looking at pictures, sitting around with my other friends from work, listening to The National (a horribly melancholy band whose lyrics like “how close am I to losing you?” perfectly fit my somber mood) and crying on the phone to my mother, the very last thing I wanted to do was babysit Cierra when she came to visit St. Thomas. I was feeling frustrated that I had not been comforted in the way that I needed since Mark’s death. I do completely understand that everyone deals with death in different ways. People go through the motions and say all the “right things” to try to support you but everyone needs to be comforted in their own way. And even then, no one can make the pain go away after you lose someone. …
But, that day, the comfort that I needed came from a very unlikely source: Cierra’s questions. Because of her youth, she asked me the questions that adults were shying away from. Simply because of her curious innocence, she wanted to know exactly what happened and why I was so affected by Mark’s death. And she genuinely wanted to know Mark because he was so important to me. I told her some stories, showed her pictures I had been crying over all weekend, mimicked his Nebraskan accent and his pronunciation of “diabetes” and “errrmahgod.” I told her the way he could light up a room without even trying, and how his happiness and laugh was fully contagious.
She didn’t say “it’s okay.” She didn’t tell me she understood. In fact, she didn’t say any of the cliché things I’d heard from everyone else that week. Simply, after learning about Mark, she listened to me and asked me simple questions in a refreshing, sincere manner, one I had not yet experienced but very much needed. She demonstrated she didn’t only care about me, she also, simply, cared about Mark. She reminded me death is bigger than all of us. …
After Cierra left St. Thomas that morning, I felt at peace for the first time. This scrawny 9th grader, who pretends to go to the bathroom multiple times an hour to check her phone, became an unexpected friend exactly when I needed her. Yes, we are extremely different in many ways, but the universal concept of death helped me realize that differences don’t have to be resolved for a friendship to be formed.