Towards the end of April, all of the ETAs and the WORDS winners from their schools gathered for the national WORDS competition in Jakarta. Every single student there was incredible. I actually wrote the Indoneisaful article about the 2015 competition, so if you want to read all about the amazing weekend that was WORDS, I suggest you head over there.
I don’t want to write about WORDS here. I want to write about the journey there, and, also, about the journey that has continued, in part because of WORDS. I want to write about Afi, and how this one student has come to shape a huge part of my time at SMAN 10.
Afi is a quirky, intelligent, funny girl, who loves Doctor Who, tries to read Shakespeare in her spare time, and never lacks a quick-witted response (in English, no less) whenever you talk to her. (When I asked her what she had learned from her weekend at the National WORDS Competition, her first response was, “Thou shalt not eat four plates of breakfast. Believe me, I tried. It didn’t end very well.”) I always enjoy runninginto her after school or in the dorm; she will always make me smile.
Afi amazed everyone at my local WORDS competition. It was understood, even then, that she would have to improve very little in order stand a chance at winning at the national competition. Nonetheless, she and I still had our work cut out for us in the weeks leading to Jakarta.
The challenge was not her English. Afi actually learned English, from her parents, before she learned Indonesian, and she sounds almost exactly like a native speaker. The challenge was not her speech: it sounded like poetry, and had almost everyone, including me, was in tears even the first time she gave it.
The challenge, for Afi, was getting through the speech, emotionally.
Her speech was about a childhood friend with Autism, the son of some of her parents’ closest university friends. Afi and this young man, grew up together almost as siblings, and she credits him as being one of the most powerful forces that shaped her into the young woman she is today. Just a week beforeSMAN 10’s WORDS Competition, her friend passed away due to diabetes and kidney failure. Afi, who had originally planned to take on the topic of being a young Muslim woman in a world where she accused of being a member of ISIS in online English chatrooms, almost dropped out of the WORDS Competition altogether before deciding, two days before the competition, that she wanted to try to talk about her friend in her speech.
She came to me for help in preparing her speech, and it was so clear how difficult it was for her to talk about this topic. I worried it was too much, too soon, for her to give this speech in front of everyone. But she wanted to try, and I was not going to stand in her way.
She made it through the local competition beautifully. Then the real work began.
Afi’s speech was too long, and much of it needed to be cut to meet the national requirements. Cutting a speech down is difficult for anyone, but it is even more difficult when you have to eliminate words about a close friend whom you are trying to honor.
Once we had a speech, we practiced as much as we could together—in empty classrooms, in the office after everyone had gone home (we were almost locked in by security a few times), in my room late at night (she delivering her speech quietly, in order to avoid getting caught breaking curfew)—and while often she delivered her speech perfectly, and I had almost no suggestions to give her, more than once she had to stop because it was simply too much.
I have been in Afi’s shoes. After losing one of my closest friends in a car crash my junior year of college, I tried to use spoken word poetry as a way to keep her memory alive, and find a way to express how important a person she was. In the end, doing so actually helped me to cope with the emptiness that had replaced her presence, but there was no denying that sometimes reciting the words I had written for her opened and deepened wounds I had thought were in the process of healing.
I would never have imagined that sharing this story would become part of my coaching for my WORDS student. But by describing my own experience to Afi, I was able to show her that her pain did not make her weak, that her struggle to articulate how she felt did not make her a bad friend. I told her, again and again, that the cacophony of emotions that battered her heart every time she practiced her speech—the sadness, the frustration, the cold emptiness and the fiery anger—was natural, was okay.
Afi was worried about the national competition, understandably. At SMAN 10’s Competition, she was delivering her speech in front of people who knew her and cared about her; in Jakarta, she would be pouring her heart out in a room full of strangers.
We were prepared. I did not let us leave without a plan. I was to wait near the stage, and after her speech, she would tell me what she needed. If she was okay, we would go back to our seats. If she needed to, we would find a place to hide and cry.
During the first round, Afi did a fantastic job of delivering her speech, “Another Set of Wings.” She choked up a little at the end, but she powered through, and did great honor to her friend. I met her off stage, and asked her what she needed. “Let’s go to the bathroom,” she said to me, and we left. It did not take her long to compose herself, strong young woman that she is, and we returned to enjoy the rest of the speeches.
When the names of the seven finalists were announced, and Afi’s name was called, I was overjoyed. After all the emotional turmoil she had undergone to get to that point, I was glad she was able to achieve something special, in honor of her friend. Later, when I asked her how she felt, hearing that she was a finalist, she told me:
It’s like being sucker punched…in a good way, of course. But for a split second, when my name was announced, I wanted to run away from the room and not come back. I brought up a topic that’s hard to speak about in daily life: autism and loss, and the two of them wrapped up tight in Bagus, the friend in my speech. Diabetes and kidney failure tore his body apart until there was nothing left to save. It couldn’t be helped; because he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was hurting. He could only suffer in silence until it was time for him to go, and sometimes I prefer to remember him that way, rather than picturing him crumpled in pain. I was still mourning his loss at the day of the competition (that was why I put on black everything), and being a finalist meant I have to relive the sadness and the pain and the memories. But I realized, he’s not gone. He just found that bright place. He was alive. He burned brightly, and then he died. But not really. Because someone like him cannot, will not, die like everyone else. He will always be here, in the offerings and the people he left behind. So I wipe away the tears. I kept in mind the reason I was on that stage: to convey a message that people with autism are people first. They do not deserve to be held in shackles, cornered, harassed, exiled. They deserve love and affection, even though they don’t always know how to return it. They are not a lost cause, and they are stronger than we think. I didn’t care about winning. I didn’t care about trophies or medals or awards. I just wanted my voice to be heard, and my message loud and clear.
After the final round, when Afi was announced as the overall winner of the 2015 WORDS Competition, she sat in her seat, stunned, unable to believe it was really her name being called.
That’s one of the best parts about Afi: she is genuinely one of the most humble people I have ever met. She never thought of herself as a winner. She just thought of herself as a friend, as someone who had a message she wanted others to hear. And it was heard.
Winning WORDS really changed things for Afi, in ways I don’t think either of us expected. Her dream of studying abroad seems more a reality now, and she and I have spent much of the past month discussing SATs and Financial Aid for studying abroad. I don’t know exactly where she will end up, or what she’ll decide to study, but I know she will be amazing, wherever she goes.
She is also much more confident now. When I asked her if I could share a video of her speech publicly, because people in my family wanted to watch it, she seemed surprised, but gave her consent. Later, she said to me, “It’s still hard to believe that people in other countries want to see me speak.” She looked embarrassed. Then she smiled. “I’ve never felt so fabulous.”
“You are fabulous,” I told her, “Never forget that.”
I pray she never does. I know I certainly won’t.
Afi’s Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi-qw8iv8s0
 Afi actually did not really learn Indonesian until she started school. She once told me the story of how, when she first walked into her kindergarten class, she could not understand her classmates, because she did not know enough Indonesian. Though she has worked hard to learn Indonesian, and even some Javanese, since that point, she still finds it difficult sometimes to express herself in what would traditionally be her first language, as a native-born Indonesian. Often, she says, she finds it easier to speak in English. She says she is partially glad of this, as she dreams of studying abroad, and being fluent in English will help her to do this. But she also finds it somewhat isolating. Hers is a unique story