Working with teenagers can be challenging, exhausting, sometimes fun and sometimes heartbreaking. Teenage girls are sucked into a vacuum of pressures and unattainable standards that can affect them in ways that could break even the best of us hardened mature adults. However, as educators we sometimes are able to find unique avenues to help the kids see their future potential in the sneakiest ways. I work in a high school setting that has a high pregnancy rate, high dropout rate, and a high amount of influence from gangs and street violence. Some of my kids are affected by these negative influences, but an even higher amount of them are not. Most of them have an incredible sense of community and latch on to anything that positively impacts their immediate surroundings. However, they are not exposed to as much as students in more affluent areas of town. They don't see much outside of their neighborhoods. I have caught the look in their eyes when they listen to me brag about my marathons and some of the fun running trips I have taken with friends. They seem fascinated by the most mundane details about my races and behave as if training and running their own road races is a far off distant dream.
For a very long time, I sat on my ass wondering how the girls at my school would react to the creation of a social running club. Would they sign up? Would they be willing to deal with the heat? Would they freak out from all the sweating? Running in the neighborhood where I live is easy. We have nicely paved running trails, well lit sidewalks and clearly marked crosswalks at busy intersections. When I need to, I can buy new running shoes from nearby athletic apparel stores and have access to several running pros in my network of friends to answer any questions on my mind. There is also an abundance of running clubs and groups to meet up with so you never have to go it alone. Running where my students live is not so easy. There are far fewer sidewalks and the vehicular traffic is unpredictably dangerous. My kids' parents don't have a lot of disposable funds to blow on expensive running gear for fickle teenage girls. Nevertheless, I was determined to give this venture a try with slim hopes that at least 10 girls would be interested in joining.
Fast forward a couple of months and I now have 35 girls in my club. There is a waiting list for additional memberships. I had to stop accepting girls because the numbers were growing too rapidly for my one set of eyes to watch them all safely on group runs. We meet twice a week after school and never run more than 3 or 4 miles at a time. We have no budget, no gear and no t-shirts. All we have are a couple of low traffic running routes I was able to carefully map out with a lot of help from the girls themselves. I was honest with them when we met for our first run together and told them they were my guinea pigs in this experiment. I explained how the program would be bare-bones and we would figure it out as we went along. They did not care about all that in the least. They were too thrilled to get out and do something together that any one of them was too afraid to do on their own.
After our very first run together (only 2 miles), I was panicking that they would complain about the heat or the fact that I kept nagging them to drink water the whole time. Surely they would drop out and stomp away from the club forever once they realized how much work running can be. Would you believe none of that happened? They returned to the school at the completion of that first run with tomato-red faces, sweaty clothes and multiple mosquito bites...and they were beaming with pride. I was astonished at how they absorbed that first run so well. In the time that has transpired since that first day, the girls have grown close and supportive of each other in ways I did not notice before. We have a safety rule on the runs that no girl is ever left behind. Everyone must have a "buddy" of sorts that they stick with and check on in case they need to slow down or walk. They also seem to be following this rule away from our runs, too. I have observed the girls doing the same thing in the hallways and in the classrooms, as they encourage each other and keep pushing their buds to do better. No one gets left behind. They seem to be taking this to heart.
My girls have made me so proud of them because of the smallest changes they have made. They make every effort to avoid D-hall and finish up after school tutorials just so they can make it to our group runs on time. Some of the girls are drinking water during the day for the first time ever because they say soda and juice doesn't hydrate them well enough. One student in particular gave up her beloved Hot Cheetos because she felt she needed to make better choices for her pre-run snack. If they are already making changes like this in the few short weeks we have been running, I can only imagine the impact it can make in the years to come. I was a fully grown, allegedly mature adult when I starting running and it impacted my existence for the better immediately. The women I met through a running club have become some of my closest friends. I relish the time I spend running with my buds because it makes me feel happy and strong, and gets me closer to becoming the kind of person I want to be. Could my students also experience this same feeling? I hope they do and maybe more. From the start, my goal for these girls was for them to simply give running a try in hopes that it would encourage them to take better care of their bodies and spirits. Who knows if it will work or not, but how "far" they choose to take it is entirely up to them.