In my freshman year, four friends and I started Students Expanding Austin Literacy (SEAL), a service organization that pairs college students with elementary school reading buddies. You probably recognize us as the stampede of longhorns clad in red t-shirts, always gushing about the cute kids we work with. As a business student, meeting with my buddy once a week is how I’ve held onto my final strand of humanity.
This week marks the end of my two year regime as SEAL’s president. I’m confident that my successor will treat our SEAL pup well, but recently, I have been reflecting a lot on the founding board’s legacy. We have sent over 140 UT volunteers to 11 elementary campuses, which equates to around 2,000 hours of service. Those stats seem like reasonable KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators, it’s a business acronym), but a better question than “How many?” is “How well?” So what if all these college students work with kids? How well are they doing their job? Are they actually making a difference?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the stats to answer those questions. We don’t have access to standardized test scores and we don’t make our students take benchmark reading assessments. However, we do have plenty of stories that scream SUCCESS.
I met my current reading buddy a year ago. He’s a superhero, so to protect his secret identity, let’s just call him JJ. When I first met him, he was a shy little feller and his favorite word was “suck.”
“I suck at reading,” JJ said every time he stumbled on a word. He would stare at the ceiling and frantically flip through the pages. “You read now.”
“Slow down, pal. I believe in you.” With each page that he finished, I gave him a high five and said “I knew you could do it.”
“I suck at drawing,” JJ said whenever his art was anything short of the Mona Lisa. He would crumple up his paper, reach for a new sheet, and hand it to me. “Can you draw it for me?”
“Let’s draw it together. Only way to get better is to practice.” At the end of the day, we would exchange our masterpieces. “See? I knew you could do it.”
Although “literacy” is in SEAL’s name, the bond between buddies is my top priority. We aren’t trained literacy professionals, but we can still inspire confidence and curiosity. Whenever JJ and I drew or played with LEGO’s, we had deep conversations about our dreams, families, and occasionally, girls (he was shocked to learn that I’m not married).
After fifteen weeks of cheering him on, he finally reached the tipping point. We had just finished reading “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” when I told him that I needed to go to the restroom.
“Ok, I’m going to read this one,” he said, picking up a new book. I assumed he meant that we were going to read the book together after I returned, but when I came out of the restroom, I found him reading the book out loud, all by himself. It actually a brought a tear to my eye.
Later that day, he said, “Can we draw dolphins? I know how to draw a dolphin.” He said he liked my drawing, I said I liked his more, and he said, “Thank you, I’ve been practicing.”
Then, we tried drawing Batman in all his muscular glory. “This isn’t easy, huh?” I mumbled, struggling to make my drawing look more humanoid and less like a potato in a bat suit.
“Nothing in life is easy,” he said through gritted teeth, smiling.
Last week, I began reading a book aloud, but he took the reigns as soon as we hit the second page. He breezed through the whole book in less than ten minutes. When he finished, he set it down gently and said, “I knew we could do it.”
I am so thankful for the officers, volunteers, partners, mentors, and investors that have made this magic possible. There were days when I had my doubts, but deep down, I always knew we could do it. Yes, SEAL still needs to find a way to quantitatively measure our impact, but that’s a job for the new president. Now that I’m retired, JJ’s confidence reminds me to take on my future with the same attitude and #SEALtheDeal with every new opportunity.
President Lam out. *Drops mic*
Some of my favorite conversations with my buddy:
One of my favorite TED talks about how every child deserves a hype man/woman:
Click on this image to visit the SEAL blog and read more about us reading with kids: