Congrats to Katy Simpson Smith, our May Volunteer of the Month! Katy has been a faithful behind-the-scenes copyeditor for years now, painstakingly making sure our students' writing is a readable as possible once published. This year alone, she's copyedited all 250 Pizza Poetry Poems, the book I Want You to Know Something About Me: Letters about the election of Donald Trump by New Orleans Youth, and the forthcoming publication History Between These Folds: Personal Stories by the 11th Grade at G.W. Carver High School. Thanks for all your hard work and dedication, Katy!
What first brought you to Big Class?
I started working with Big Class's after-school program in the spring of 2013, after I'd been in the city a couple of years and was still trying to figure out where I fit in and who my people were. Obviously, my people were writers and readers and dreamers and bald-faced liars.
What keeps you coming back?
The way these students use language both delights me and challenges me to be a better writer. In a poem for this year's Pizza Poetry project, one kid wrote: "Is love people’s way of telling you a secret? Is love people’s way of saying I love you? Is love my way of telling you something important?" I've been pondering that for the past week.
What are some skills you have that help you out at Big Class?
I mostly work on copyediting, so a good acquaintance with grammar and spelling would be the obvious skill, but I also enjoy hearing the students' voices in my head as I'm reading their work, which helps me keep their attitudes and idiosyncrasies even as I'm ensuring that they're readable.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced at Big Class?
Those moments when you're looking at a handwritten or transcribed student piece and have absolutely no idea what they were trying to say. I wish I had a magic telephone to call up their brains: "Yo, Tiffany! Is this word 'sparkling' or 'spelunking'?"
What are some great projects you’ve helped with? Tell us the story behind one of them if you can.
One of my favorite projects this year was the book of letters responding to the election. You can really tell when a student goes beyond the assigned prompt to express genuine passion or concern, and this project elicited plenty of raw fear, confusion, and also hope. I worked on the collection over the winter holidays, so I was able to share my favorite letters with family members, Democrat and Republican alike, which prompted plenty of good dinner-table debate.
What are you up to when you’re not volunteering with us?
I mostly sit on the porch, working on another novel. Every now and then I'll walk down to the river to make sure it's still there. This spring, I also organized a series of writing workshops in public high schools across Mississippi (which has involved much consultation so far with the Big Class staff!); it's been an important reminder that you can't do big things by yourself.