08/02/2013 10:59 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

There Was No We in We (Part II)

I had very little idea of what I wanted to do after I graduated from college. I enjoyed writing, was drawn to education, to rowing, and to working with young people. It was hard to imagine how these pieces could ever form a job. I moved to Boston and joined my college rowing friends and we all made our way through those first post-college jobs together.

I worked at a school for kids who had been asked to leave the Boston public school system because of severe behavioral problems. The director of the school, my first boss, who would later turn into a dear friend and mentor, had described the work as "a great challenge" in the interview. I remember telling my mom this on the phone, to which she had said, "Uh, oh, a challenge? You know what that means Amanda." I didn't.

This job, in a word, was devastating. It broke my heart to meet so many kids whose lives were already such train wrecks. I learned about rubber rooms and how to perform a four point restraint and "contract for safety" with a young person screaming that, when I let him go, he would surely cut my f***ing face off. An hour later, we'd be working side by side on a story for the school newsletter. It was almost more than I could bear to work with children with so little hope in their lives. After a year there, I applied to a graduate program at Harvard's School of Education.

I spent the next two years making as little investment in graduate school as possible. This wasn't my intention going in and not something I'm proud of. It's just what happened. I had worked extremely hard as an undergraduate and knew how to focus in, but my heart and energy were elsewhere.

At the same time I started my graduate school courses, I also began a job coaching a new program called Girls Row Boston. The goal was to make rowing accessible to girls from Boston's under-resourced communities. Within about two weeks of working with my group of girls, I was hooked. It was my job to recruit girls from a low performing Boston high school, teach them to row, and get them racing. This was no small task, but I approached it with all the zeal I was not putting towards graduate school. I had about 15 girls in my charge and I knew we were going to learn a lot across our time together, but I never predicted just how transformative that experience was going to be for them, or for me.

The first day out on the water, I naively asked, "Is there anyone who doesn't know how to swim?" I recognize this would have been a better question to ask before going on the water, but there we were. It was a pretty September afternoon on the Charles River, still a lot of green on the trees and experienced collegiate boats were flying by either side of us, but the girls smiled nervously and looked around the boat at one another. I decided to rephrase the question, "Who, of the nine of you, knows HOW to swim?" and one girl raised her hand. This scenario repeated itself throughout the year in various forms, "Who knows how to run on a treadmill?", "Who knows how to study for a test?", "Who knows how to push themselves even when they're tired and every ounce of them wants to stop?", "Who knows what happens when it's your birthday?" Again and again, I saw very few hands go up. So, that year was spent learning to swim, taking over the local YMCA's cardio room, studying together (more them, than me), learning to push even when we wanted to stop, making a boat go fast, and eating birthday cakes.

I still went to classes at Harvard and turned in assignments (most of them), but my heart was not in it. Graduate school was too hypothetical. Too many discussions of scenarios, theories of change, and the correct pronunciation of pedagogy. My heart belonged fully to this group of girls on the Charles River with their lives and needs that were not at all hypothetical. That spring, after months of training (running, rowing, swimming, lifting weights) and practicing on the river the girls raced in the Mother's Day Regatta on the Charles.

Before launching for their race, they were terrified, and I told them that if they were able to come back into the dock at the end of the race and know in their hearts that there was not a single ounce of effort left in them when they came across the finish line then I would be very proud of them. After all, trying our hardest when there is a great risk of failure, public failure no less, is a feat within itself. They nodded nervously and rowed away towards the starting line.

That group of girls won the Mother's Day Regatta. I think there were about four teams there. This was no large athletic affair, but I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. When my girls came rowing back to the dock, they were sobbing with happiness, they dove out of the boat and we all hugged and shook and cried. I had been in the division II national championship boat in college and the bronze medalist boat at the IRA championships, but those victories did not match this one. This one was about so much more than making a boat go down a course faster than the other boats. This was about girls who had trusted me to push them beyond what they thought they were capable of, on the water, with their schoolwork, and even at home. They had taken these risks and found success together.

I don't know if that group of girls know this, but they were the inspiration for Row New York. Next post, I promise, I'll share the story of finding a place to row in New York City.