Friday, July 24, 2009

Reaching Out by Francisco Jimenez

"I thank Francisco Jimenez for honoring all brave children who grow up poor in America."
Sandra Cisneros

Reaching Out is the kind of memoir I love; quiet, intimate, affecting. It hasn't been getting much attention here in Canada, despite its being a multiple award winner and a Belpre Honour book in its home country. In fact, the major urban library I work for does not even own a copy--I had to buy this myself in order to read it. I think this book may find its audience slowly, but will be richly rewarding to those who come across it and appreciate its simplicity and insight.

Francisco Jimenez grew up in poverty. Not modern North American poverty, but real spend-your-childhood-working-the-fields poverty. Born in Mexico but raised as an illegal alien in the United States, Francisco is the first in his family and community to attend University. His father has never been to school at all, cannot read or write, and is crippled by back pain brought on by a lifetime of itinerant field labour. In Reaching Out, Francisco leaves home for the first time to pursue an education as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University.

Francisco faces many challenges in his four years at school; guilt over not assisting his family financially, loneliness, anxiety over his academic capability, and what I would describe as socio-economic culture shock. He describes how jarring his fellow student's freshman antics seem to him; for him, school is serious, attending University a privilege. Despite Francisco's intelligence, it is clear that his previous schooling has not prepared him for higher education, and were it not for several teachers who reach out to mentor him, he may well have had a very different experience. Reaching Out honours those mentors, who consistently took the time to give him the feedback and the support he needed to achieve success in this foreign environment.

This book made me reflect on how important a role confidence and encouragement play in learning at every level. It made me reflect on the idea of learning communities, as places where personal connection is a recognized part of the learning process. I was affected by the respect for learning Jimenez brought with him to the classroom, the value he placed on his education. While understandably frustrated that it takes him a week to write an essay his roommate knocks out in one night, there is a dignity to Francisco as he travels the path to his goal. Respect is a big value in Reaching Out, and thanks to both the respect Francisco has for his opportunities and the respect for his abilities, however latent, his teachers consistently demonstrate throughout his undergraduate years, he has gone on to have a distinguished academic career. I find it fitting and happy that Francisco is now a teacher himself, and I suspect his students consider themselves lucky people indeed.

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