All over the US, kids are going back to school, and it got me to thinking back to school in my life, and Rebeka’s life, what it looked like and how it ultimately brought us together. As I anticipate the launch of Her Own Two Feet, preparing for the party in October and participating in podcasts and blog posts and various interviews, it has given me the chance to look at Rebeka’s story through different lenses. The “school lens” is a pretty fascinating one.
If Rebeka hadn’t gone to school through a sponsorship with Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM), it’s quite possible we never would have met, and Rebeka’s feet would never have been turned. I can’t imagine life without photos like this one, those knee-high polka-dotted socks on this beautiful girl’s turned feet, sitting in my living room.
And if I hadn’t gone to graduate school, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t be writing this post about my upcoming book right now. About 20 years after I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I decided I wanted to get an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from a college I had heard about from tons of talented writers. Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) has quite the reputation, and with Kathi Appelt and Cynthia Leitich Smith and so many other phenomenal teachers, it was perfect.
One of the most important things I learned was how to reimagine a project again and again, each time approaching it with confidence. This was helpful a few years after graduation as I reimagined Her Own Two Feet from a picture book to a narrative nonfiction middle grade. The first time I wrote nonfiction work (in the form of critical essays) since I graduated from UT was at VCFA, and it helped me gain a voice in something other than my fiction “safe spot.” Graduating from VCFA changed my writing life and set me on a new trajectory in my career.
In Rwanda, school isn’t free and many rural families can’t afford to send their kids. Charles Mugisha started ANLM after the genocide in 1994 to help get orphaned and impoverished kids in school, and today they sponsor over 10,000 kids. Rebeka got sponsored in 2011 and started attending school at age nine, just a few weeks before Clay first met her.
Clay was in Rwanda to teach a small business seminar through our partnership with ANLM. If Rebeka hadn’t been in school through ANLM, Clay wouldn’t have met her while going out to meet sponsored kids.
When Rebeka came to live with us while having surgeries on her feet, she had only been in school a few months. In Austin, she received a different kind of schooling. The one on one time with me and a private tutor twice a week leapfrogged Rebeka from not knowing the sounds letters make or how to count to twenty to becoming fluent in English, reading short beginning readers, and performing addition and subtraction equations.
This summer I got to see Rebeka in action in her classroom as we filmed the video I’ll be showing at school visits. Her school is a beautiful, colorful place. Outdoor murals educate as well as decorate, and the cafeteria is just as loud and filled with energy as the cafeterias I remember when I was a kid.
New Life Academy is such a good place for Rebeka to learn and grow. This November she’ll be taking national exams. Students take them after 6th, 9th and 12th grade and their scores determine their future schooling. Rebeka can’t be in Austin for our book’s release because she’ll be preparing for this most important exam.
I can’t talk about our story without talking about school. It had unanticipated consequences, as I imagine it always does. I cannot wait to share Rebeka’s story with school kids, and encourage them to be “strong like butterflies” because sometimes “chance comes once.” If that doesn’t make sense, you will understand once you read the book, coming out in just a few weeks on October 1st!