I'm still not sure how the misunderstanding happened, but it was clear there had been a big one as I walked across the littered high school campus in Southern California and had to face the cold reality that the one-hour speech I had prepared for this ninth-grade assembly was wrong. All wrong.
I accepted the invitation from a friend of a friend of a friend, and somewhere along the line, there had been a miscommunication about the kind of school where I would be speaking. I thought it was a middle- to upper-middle-class high school and prepared accordingly--putting together a speech about writing from the heart and how characters and story lines are developed.
The teacher walking with me filled me in on the realities: Ninety-five percent of the student body had English as a second language. Very few of the four hundred ninth graders I would be addressing could read or write. So much for an in-depth discussion on writing styles and character development.
The teacher said she was a bit concerned about my speaking to such a large crowd of students because en masse these kids were rowdy.
"Define rowdy," I said. She smiled and unlocked a chain link fence. I followed her into the auditorium, past graffiti from rival street gangs.
What, I asked myself, could I possibly say to these kids that would connect us and make a difference? My mind was blank.
I stood by the podium, clutching my meaningless notes as the students