Yesterday was the first of 10 sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated boys. Since I have two classes this year they will be class 1 and class 2 (unique, I know.)
Just getting to class yesterday was an event as we are having huge rain storms here in northern California, accompanied by thunder and lighting and hail. I walked into the room and was greeted by cheers (they really like a break in their routine) and a couple of kids shouted out, "She has Sketchers!" Who would have thought that finally, after all these years, I’m wearing something (shoes) the cool kids want to wear.
This class is different from the group I had last year as they have a bit more freedom. You could the room was more relaxed (though we still have a guard in the room.)
I told them a little bit about myself and they were surprised to hear I was 51 years old. They guessed around 31. Good for my ego. We talked about what a rock was in the non-traditional sense. They got it right away and started rattling things off. Then I read them a few poems from my book, Hugging the Rock. This is a very smart group, articulate, and they jumped into conversation right away.
We did an acrostic poem about their name to help me get to know them better. They went right to dictionaries when they needed a word and had no trouble coming up to the front of the class to read their poem out loud. (Except for one kid.) This is going to be a lively group. I can already see a few distinct personalities and that is part of the fun of this type of work.
We brainstormed a list of positive words and I asked them each to pick a word for the day. I told them we’d do this every day that I come in. Next week I will have mini books for them to put their positive words into and keep.
This session is only an hour which I think is better than the 90 minutes I tried before. It means more sessions but I think I can keep their attention better. This group is going to keep me on my toes.
I had them vote on what they wanted to use for art, markers or colored pencils, and again this group picked pencils. I don’t know why it surprised me but it did. It’s good though since colored pencils don’t dry out and I already have a bunch of them.
I’m picking a positive word for each day that I visit them too. For the first visit my word is: POTENTIAL.
These kids are filled with it. I just want to point them in the right direction so they can see it too.
Friday was the second session of the new Incarcerated teens poetry class.
As in every group or class there are some that love to talk and some that want to be invisible. This session I wanted to introduce comparisons. As always when I get to something semi-technical or with any sort of "rules" to follow, I lose confidence in myself. I don’t really know how to counter that except to keep on doing it.
I read some from The Book of Qualities and shared some examples but I think I need to build up my stash of examples. I also think just me talking for too long is boring to them so I really want to get them writing as soon as possible yet I struggle with not talking enough. I only have them for an hour though. I wish I had had some formal teacher training to help me with this sort of thing. I also think I need to come up with some more group poetry exercises we can do together at the board. It helps gets things flowing.
They’re a talkative group. Or some of them are. Some of them, of course, would like to melt into the seat and not have to talk at all. They’re good about standing up and reading what they’ve written and mostly good about encouraging each other. It’s interesting to watch the emotions go back and forth between them and imagine who might be on opposite sides of an imaginary line when they leave the classroom. Because they are so articulate I really have high expectations for their work yet I know that it is up to me to find the way to pull their words out of them and get them to put them on the page.
From comparisons we talked a little bit about the senses and how to use them in our poetry. Then I asked them to take the word they chose for themselves the first day and describe it with the five senses. They asked for an example and I did a quick one on the board for them with the word I chose that first day.
When they finished their sensory pieces we went straight to some art because I knew this first piece would take some time. We made little accordion books so that they can put one word on each page. The idea is that they pick a word each time I go in there. Then they can decorate the book and I’ll laminate it with packing tape and they will have it to take with them. It’s small enough to fit in their pocket.
Most of them did okay making the book. One kid worked ahead and cut something he shouldn’t have. Another feels like he has done all this before so he doesn’t have to do it again. He challenges everything as though he’s 100 years old and done everything there is worth doing in the world. Another student is writing a book of his own and asked me questions about how to approach publishers. I think he is going to have publishing questions for me at every visit.
I can’t tell if they liked the idea or even "get" the idea but they did it. One mistake I think I made is that I told them they could keep the booklets with their stuff rather than put them in their folders. I should have had them put them in the folders and give them to them at the end. Lesson learned for the next week.
My word for this session is HOPE
And here’s the quick example I did for them on using the senses to describe our word of the day. My word was potential.
Looks like a room full of smiling young men
Smells like fresh rain
Tastes like that first bite of my favorite chocolate cake
Feels like hope
Sounds like the Universe clapping
Monday was the third session of the new Incarcerated teens poetry class.
I worked myself up into a worry funk before class today. I settled down once I got there but I really hate all the angst I pile on myself ahead of time.
As usual they were enthusiastic in their greetings. A little tough to get down to work (one kid wanted to make sure he was getting some sort of extra credit by participating because he really didn’t want to do it.) But once they got into it, they once again did great work. All but one of them remembered their books and the teacher took that one back to his room so he could get his. Some have worked ahead and picked out their ten words already. No one gave me a hard time when I asked them their word for the day. Some are decorating the pages and of course a couple are just writing the words down because they have to.
I had them do another poem based on their word from the previous visit. I gave them the option of another acrostic or one using the five senses. One student asked if he could do comparisons and I said yes. He did a great job. Tomorrow we’ll have to do two word poems to get caught up with one word/one poem.
Then I read them, "Time Somebody Told Me" from Betsy Franco’s book, THINGS I HAVE TO TELL YOU. We talked about it a bit. I’m not strong on facilitating discussions with non-talkers but a couple of them had thoughts about it. One of them said it made him feel like he could change. I read a free more free verse poems and then we talked about writing free verse. I put an example on the board of a paragraph and then went back and took out words and showed them how it could shape into a poem. Then they wrote.
This time they all (well almost all) wanted to share right away. They are great about getting up and coming up front and reading their work. I told them how many people are afraid of public speaking and how great it was that they all seemed to be fine with doing it.
The one thing I wish I had done differently was to give them a topic to write on. Poetry is still new enough to them that they spend time flounder for what to write about. Tomorrow I’ll make sure to bring in a few topics to focus their thoughts.
My word for the day was AMAZING!
Wednesday was the fourth session of the new Incarcerated teens poetry class.
This time I felt prepared. I had some great poems to share. I had a couple of good exercises planned that I felt would help them probe some feelings. I was feeling like I knew just what I needed to do. Until I walked in the door.
As things were getting started the teacher mentioned that they had been asking about love poems and she had given them a couple of famous (translation, very old) love poems but they just couldn’t get into them. So I dropped the lesson plan I had in mind and went out of the box, which is never an easy thing for me.
One of the poems they had was "How Do I Love Thee?" and they just couldn’t get into. Well I’ve never tried to dissect that particular poem but we took a stab at talking our way through it together. Then we brainstormed all the different ways they could show someone they loved them without ever using the word "love." This was a fun exercise because they started off silly, talking about making googely eyes at someone but then they got into the real stuff and talked about respect and listening and nurturing. Their words, not mine. When the board was full of words it was easy to see a pattern – many of the words they chose to describe love were also words that were showing up in the positive word book. A lightbulb moment perhaps for at least one of them.
We talked a bit about list poems and I had them do a quick one to get in the writing mood. I tore sentences from magazines that were questions and passed one out to each kid. Then I asked them to answer the question in a list. Those were the only rules. As always, they impressed me with the way they were instantly able to jump outside the realm of the expected and go somewhere else.
After that I gave them the assignment to write a love poem that never mentioned the word love. Though they grumbled a bit they soon got into it. The concept of freewriting is still new to them but once they put their heads down and get going, they really generate a lot of great words.
There was a new kid who joined the class this session. He had the haunted eyes of someone new to the system, wondering what it was he was supposed to do or so in order to pass the invisible test. Looking at him I was reminded of where I was, what these boys had done to get them here, and how, sadly, not all of them would be saved or changed by their experience.
It made me want to go around the room and hug each of them.
My word for this session is CURIOUS.
Friday was the fifth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.
It was a light writing day, as I knew it would be, because I had promised they could make Valentines. We used the first part of the session to get caught up on the word poems and their word books and then I turned them loose with art supplies. I brought in a variety of paper and then I had printed out a bunch of different hearts that they could cut out and decorate. Some of them asked the teacher for printouts of script letters so the could write fancy. These boys have some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. I know a lot of it comes from tagging and writing things they are supposed to write in places they aren’t supposed to write them but still, beautiful penmanship.
A few of them asked for printouts of cartoon character couples. It wasn’t so they could cut them out and glue them on the cards but so they could draw them, just by looking at them. I hadn’t thought beyond hearts but by the time I left on Friday I had requests for roses, a single rose in a vase, more cartoon couples, and a penguin. I loved seeing them, (okay most of them,) so enthusiastic. For a little while it was easy to forget where I was, to imagine that I was in a regular high school classroom and these were regular kids, not kids who were already deep in the juvenile justice system.
There’s one boy seems so full of hurt and anger that I just want to wrap my arms around him and hug him until he really feels it. But he is also filled with words and that can only be a good thing. His writing is hard and honest. I don’t know how long he has been where he is or how much longer he will be there but I wonder and perhaps worry, if it will be enough for him. I hope so.
There’s one who, no matter what you ask him, he manages to work how wonderful he is into his answer. Self-esteem doesn’t seem to be his problem. His writing is filled with joy and love.
There’s one who never wants to do whatever it is we are going to do until he sees the other kids digging in. I never expect him to do much yet he always surprises me with a line or two that goes straight to the gut. I tell him this, this honest writing, is terrific and he shrugs it off.
There is one who loves to write so much that he writes in his free time and works ahead on the stuff we are doing. When he is writing I can see that same determination that I see on the face of so many other writers as they are doing what they love to do.
There is one who races through the assignments because getting to the end is all that matters to him. And yet even in his race, he captures the emotion of his moment.
There is one who is getting out soon and I know he is only doing what he has to do in order mark his time. I watch him sometimes and wonder which way he will go when he outside.
And there is one, the one I have been waiting to find in this group, one that I think is making the connection between words on paper offering a way to be heard and a way to free oneself to walk a different path when he gets out. I watch him struggle between what he feels and what he puts on the paper. I watch how he hesitates, wondering whether writing it down really makes a difference, and then I watch him stand up and read his work with pride. I watch him smile, just a little, when we clap for him.
I watch him and hope a spark has been lit.
There’s nothing like opening the classroom door and being greeted with a chorus of "Susan! Susan! Susan!" to make a girl feel great. I’m sure it had more to do with getting out of some regular schoolwork than it did with poetry but hey, a girl can hope.
We had another new student. This guy is the type who always wants to be the center of attention and he gets it by going over the top with everything he does. It was a little sad because the group was writing some deep, hard stuff but the new guy was being flip. He’s only there for a short time and I only have 4 visits left so I don’t expect to make much of a connection with him. I just hope he doesn’t pull any of the others into his loop.
We did some more work with list poems. I thought I’d start with something light-hearted so I wrote I WISH on the board and had them each give me a line. I was expecting some goofy or outrageous stuff but no, they went right to my heart again. Then they worked on some I REMEMBER poems on their own and shared them. Again, all of them (except for the new guy) went right to the heart of their lives before. They accomplish great work in ten minutes of writing, the kind of gut-honest stuff I wish I managed in quick poems.
I gave them some more time to finish their Valentine’s Day cards and poems they were making for the special people in their lives. Some of them were anxious to show me what they had done. One student used his art time to copy all his poems into his own notebook, nice and neat, so he would always have it. I told him he would get to keep all his own papers and he said that was fine but he liked having them all in one place. I told him I understood. I hadn’t realized he had been doing this all along.
It’s hard not to look at them and wonder what their personal stories are. I don’t know any of them. I don’t ask and they don’t tell, except for what they share through their writing. I find myself making up little stories about them, stories I know can’t possibly be true because in my stories they are all still innocents, young boys caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my stories they all find that writing and reading can offer them another way to deal with all the crap they have to deal with in their life. It can help them find a path, a different path, and help them make a change in their lives, a change for the good.
Hey, a girl can hope.
Wednesday was the seventh session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.
We’re past the halfway point in the class so I knew it was time to get them to go deeper, if they could, if they were willing. I read them THE JOURNEY by Mary Oliver and we talked about the poem. A few of them seemed to make the connections I was hoping for and spoke of being the change they needed in their own lives. We did a group poem on the board about their teacher and then they used the same model to write about someone in their family. From family members we moved to writing about themselves, about who they were, what they thought of themselves and where they saw themselves going in the future. There was the usual grumbling about all this touchy-feely stuff but it was good-natured, for the most part. They took a little time to settle into it but then they wrote some very revealing poem about their hopes and dreams and fears. Fewer volunteered to read them out loud which is normal when we get to the tough stuff.
There were a couple of students under a veil of anger for the session. I don’t know why. But even in their anger they wrote some wonderful words. I read their pages and told them to remember what good, honest work they did even though they were angry. How good work came out of intense emotion. I’m not sure they believe me but the seed was planted.
One student wrote about how he was getting out soon and his concerns about being able to handle it on the outside without being drawn back into his old ways. I was so happy to read what he had written because he had been on my mind a lot lately, wondering, as he was, what would happen when he got out. Of course the fact that he wrote a poem about wanting to do the right thing is no guarantee that it will happen but I hope that the act of having written it down will at least make him think twice before going off the right path.
Each time I leave them I have to remind myself that my job is not to fix them. It’s not to offer them a list of solutions for their problems. My job is to light a path to help them see that there are always other options, other choices to make with their lives. To help them see that words have tremendous power. And to hope they will use that power for good.
Friday was the eighth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.
I love the familiarity with the students in the class now. The way they greet me and the way they finally call me by name instead of “Mam” all the time. I love the way they grumble and then give me a sideways smile before they settle into their work for the day.
Friday was a mish mash. Since we only have a few sessions left it’s time to start thinking about the display for the museum exhibit. I had hoped to do Glogs with them but further investigation into their options at school made that not possible. The teacher knows more about them now and can utilize the learning path FreshBrain made for them for the future but it was just too much for this time with them. A Glog would have been a great way for them to add music and graphics and video to illustrate their poem but the restriction on the Internet usage is too great. In the future what I will do is put together a batch of approved graphics and music on a flash drive so they can upload from there.
They picked out their favorite poem to copy and illustrate but they are haphazard at best and I don’t know that it shows their work to their best efforts. Sometime between now and Monday I need to come up with a better way for them to do something, I’m thinking a collaged background that I can mount their poems to. It has to be something they can finish quickly.
Their thoughts are scattered as many of them are in and out of the class doing testing. One student is getting ready to exit next week. We spoke a little bit about his fears. I can see him trying to wrap his brain around the enormousness of the changes ahead of him. Another one, the next one to exit in March, is learning about going to college to study business. It was the first I had heard him speak of it and it made me smile because, if you could see this student you’d see success written all over him. He has the charisma to succeed if he just applies himself.
I’ve been reflecting on what worked and didn’t work in these sessions. I’ve made some goofs, as I often do. It’s a learning experience for me as much as it is for them. This is the third time I’ve tried individual art projects to illustrate a poem and each time it has been less than successful. I think I need to drop that idea for now. The word books were a great idea in theory but I may have introduced them at the wrong time. I think having them give me a word for the day each session is great and they could keep a list and then we could build a book toward the end. I chose small accordion books that were easy to make and could fit in their pocket. My idea was to laminate them with packing tape when they were done. But only a couple of the students is into the idea of having it to take with him. Another is trying to copy long poems onto the tiny pages. So I’ll have to think some more on how to work this with my next group. I do love that they now have a list of words that matter to them. (Hmmm….maybe I can get them to do some art with their words if I print them out large and let them collage them?)
I read them a lot of poems but I don’t think I read them enough. I blame that on my poor memory. I need to find poems in the off-season and then make a list so I can find them easily. Trying to scan a dozen books each night before class doesn’t work very well.
I find I feel more confident in dealing with the students than I do with poetry itself. So many things I just “do” and I’m not good at figuring out the how and why and explaining it to them.
What’s worked best has been doing a group poem with them as a warm-up to writing. They’re a vocal group and they all love to get the attention from giving a great line for the poem.
We had the opportunity for an impromptu math lesson when they teased that I was going to take their work and get rich on it. I showed them a bit about how the publishing world works with advances and royalties and the length of time between payments. They shook their heads at the dollar amounts and told me someone had done me wrong with my contract because I couldn’t live on that. Then they asked me why, why do I keep on doing it?
For love, I told them. Still, they shook their heads, not able or willing to comprehend my craziness.
I do get rich off of them but not in the way they feared. I get rich with emotion and real life. They don’t realize it but they give me inspiration to carry me into writing for a long, long time.
Monday was the ninth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.
It was a hard day. I should have known that going into it thinking everything was going to go smoothly was a sure sign that things would get turned upside down. I needed some display art to add in with their poems so I thought we’d just do some simple torn paper mosaic collages. They had done a lot of small poems so I thought if they did a small background then I could put their poem in front of it and it would pop. I did a practice one myself at home. It took me 15 minutes.
I have long saved colors from magazines so I had a large collection of paper for them to choose from. I spent a couple of hours going through it all to remove all the red and the blue. When I spread it out on the table, colorside up, it was a rainbow of "paper" choices to choose from. I took in my example and showed it to each of them. I explained what we were going to do and handed out the base paper. I showed them the example again. Then they went up a few at a time to pick out their paper.
Big mistake on my part to use the magazines because even though they knew the room rules, even though I told them multiple times to use the color side ONLY, they still turned every single piece of paper over looked for women and booze and words and inappropriate colors. What was I thinking? And then, even when they got back to their desks, they couldn’t, wouldn’t grasp the concept. I felt like I had walked into a new room instead of the room full of smart young men I’d been working with for a while.
Eventually a few of them did it although I don’t think anyone got "into" it. They were doing it to get it done so they could do something else. Unfortuatalye for them, the something else was more college of letters to spell out the title of the project.
Art fail on my part but lessons learned. And the teacher urged me not to think too harshly of them (I didn’t really, it was more beating myself up for not thinking it through better) because it was Monday and Mondays are hard for them. Many of them get to see family on the weekend so it makes Monday that much more stark when they are reminded of not being able to go home yet.
We did do a group poem on the topic of freedom and they did a wonderful job with it.
It was a reminder day for me. A reminder that there are no sure things in life. The lesson plan you think is perfect can fall apart and you have to improvise. The art project you think is easy could become too hard for some people to do no matter how much time you give. The book you are writing becomes a mountain that keeps kicking you off each time you think you’re getting closer to the top.
The trick is to keep coming back for another round and not giving up.
Today in my incarcerated poetry class the topic of Cassie came up. I told them a little bit about her, how she was a rescue dog, and some of the troubles she had had before she came to live with us. When I told them them that one family had thrown her away for talking too much, some of the students got very animated. They all had solutions on how to fix the problem.
"Kick her when she does that."
"Hit her, that’ll make her stop."
"You gotta start hitting her right away, when’s she a puppy. And keep hitting her every time she does bad."
I was, of course, horrified. I asked if I kicked them every time they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, if it would make them want to write for me? The room quieted down as they shook their heads. One boy spoke up and said he guessed it didn’t really work because he got beat on all the time and he still did bad things.
How much abuse do we heap on ourselves and our writing? I don’t know about you but for me, a lot. I write a line and then beat myself up for not writing a paragraph or an entire page. I finally write a page, reread it and then tell myself how much it stinks. I pull apart my plot and compare it to other plots and then yell at myself for not being unique enough or clever enough or smart enough or, well, you get the idea.
Of course I’m going about it all wrong. Being mean to my writer self doesn’t make me want to sit down and write any more than kicking Cassie would have have made her stop barking all the time. Cassie’s change in behavior was a result of time and kindness. I put in a lot of time with her, a lot of time that we thought we would never see any progress at at. And instead of abuse she receive nothing but love. She still makes some noise but the nervous barking that seemed to have been her biggest problem is virtually gone.
I wonder how much my writing would improve if I tried the same thing?
Wednesday was the tenth and last session of the incarcerated teens poetry class.
I wondered what my reception would be after the frustrating day we had on Monday. I walked into a mostly silent class. It was obvious the teacher had spoken to them about the previous session. I don’t remember who started talking first but soon the room was full of voices, not frantic talking but calm, respectful voices all apologizing to me for their previous behavior. They told me they knew they had disrespected me. They asked that I remember how good they had been all the other times and to let the good outweigh the bad. They went on and on until I had to change the subject because otherwise I was going to burst into tears and hug each and every one of them which wasn’t something I could let happen.
It filled my heart with more joy than I can say.
I asked them for one last group poem and because they wanted to make nice with me they tried really hard. They said they wanted it to be the best poem ever. I think they did a great job. Here’s their final group poem.
sounds like a bird leaving the nest
a heart beating for success
it’s something that keeps you striving
is something you’ll never get rid of
it looks like turtles making a break for the shoreline
and feels like nothing else
like nothing can stop you
like the very pulse in your veins
smells like fresh air and morning dew
tastes like chocolate, a delicious flan with whipped cream and a cherry.
it tastes like victory.
We had some time left and I was still looking for some art to put on the wall so I handed out the nice drawing paper and asked them to spend some time studying their hands and then draw their hand. A couple of them got into that but most of them just wanted to trace it so I told them they had to put a Zentangle or something else in it to beef it up. Some of them really got into the detail but then they forgot the rules of the room and started adding gang symbols that they were not allowed to use. It took some back and forth, having the teach inspect them, but eventually they all passed inspection and we were officially done.
I handed back their folders with all their work. They seemed happy to be able to keep the folders which made me a bit sad, to think how a little thing like a folder could brighten their day. One boy immediately took all his poetry out of the folder and tore it into tiny pieces. I bit my tongue but it was hard.
Before I left I asked them to write a few lines about what they thought of the program. Here are a few of their comments:
"Susan I had a good time with you. Thanks for trying to teach me how to write poems."
"Thank you. I got to learn more about myself."
"Susan showed me a lot of great things I never thought I could do. She has opened my eyes a lot. I just want to thank her for giving us her time and show a bunch of criminals something new."
"This helped us get things out of our minds. It helped me a lot. Thank you for coming."
"I liked the poetry class. It was good getting some things out on paper. I just don’t like reading it out lout. I liked your class and the way you teach."
"I thought this program was really inspiring. I hope to get this same experience again in life. It taught me how talented I am. I never knew how talented I was until I came here. I thank Susan for showing me the ropes ’cause now I’m willing to show the world when I get out."
"I learned a lot from you, Susan. I really appreciated your time with us. I really wish your time wasn’t this short, but I will use all all this knowledge to become a poet just like you. You did an eminent (his favorite word) job working with us."
"I think this program was good. It helped me express how I feel and my day go smooth. I wish you could stay longer but everything has to end I guess. The thing I really learned is not poetry but that there is no wrong way in doing things. You would always tells us to say what we feel and I always did. That made me feel like I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I just want to thank you for coming and sharing these things with us. I learned a lot from you and I’m looking forward to going to see my art at the museum."
I have been lucky with opportunities to teach poetry to incarcerated teens. It is never an easy experience but it is always worthwhile, even when it turns my heart inside out.
I have a week off and then I start the second second at a different location.
I’m so proud of the writing my incarcerated teens did with me that I decided to share some of it for Poetry Friday. You can read more about sessions here.
Below are just a few of my favorites from what they did in 10 sessions of us working together. Because they are incarcerated I can’t post their names.
Don’t know why nothing goes right.
I try. I try. I try.
But it’s like one of the three little pigs . . .
Devil is the wolf.
It gets blown down every time.
* * *
I remember the day I would never forget
I remember it like it was yesterday
I remember something I would never get and never say ‘cause I’m not strong enough yet,
but still I stand.
* * *
How Do I Love Thee?
I appreciate what you do for me.
I will always care for you.
I’m grateful to have you in my life.
I’ll always respect you.
I will try to understand you.
Listening to you will be my first priority.
* * *
I remember when I was little and got raped without my consent.
I remember I hurt and I passed out.
I remember I was scared to get hurt.
I remember it went by slow.
I remember. I remember. I remember.
* * *
Looks like a new life, but not for me
* * *
I am a father, a son.
I wonder what life has in store for me.
I hear my family telling me to do good.
I see my son graduating.
I want to be free.
I am a father, a son.
I pretend to hold my son in my arms.
I feel hopeful.
I touch people with my words and make them believe in me.
I worry for my family’s safety.
I cry when I see my son cry for his daddy.
I am a father, a son.
I understand that it is up to me to change.
I say it is time for a change.
I dream the outs and being with my son.
I try to show my son I’m not a failure.
I hope to be home soon.
I am a father, a son.
* * *
Something I can share most people won’t bare
The staff or teacher will say don’t go there
Something I can share some people in here won’t care
They think they know it all inside and out there
Something I can share me I guess
I have a lot to say but some ain’t the best
Something I can share is my family with you
You’ll beat them til their face turns blue
I’m sharing right now my feelings with you
I’m not trying to talk down but I gotta
Let it out and if I can’t do it like this
Then someone please tell me how
Today was first session with a new group of teens in the program for at-risk students sponsored by my local Arts Council. In the past my work has been with incarcerated teens. (You can read about the most recent sessions here.) This new group is different. They are at a continuation school for at-risk students. Some of them have been in and out of lock-up. Some of them are attending here while awaiting a court date. It’s not my first time working with these type of a group but it was my first visit to the particular school.
It was a hard and horrible day that broke my heart.
The first few visits, sometimes as many as 5 or 6, are all about connecting with the kids. Letting them know they aren’t going to scare me away. That I’m going to keep coming back. That I’m going to listen to their stories and encourage their stories and help them tell their stories. I expect them to act up. I expect them to test me. I expect them to tell me they can’t write, that they’re no good at and that they just don’t want to do it. But I also expect them to eventually, even under protest, to put down a word or two, even if it’s foul language.
With this class I never stood a chance.
20+ kids funneled into the room wearing their bad attitudes like suits of armor. Their eyes blazed at me mostly in anger, some in disgust. They were loud and moving around and ignoring the teacher and ignoring me. There was never a moment of silence for me to step into and try to talk. The teacher turned the lights off but all that did was cause them to act up more. She tried again with the same results. I don’t know if she said anything. I don’t remember hearing anything.
Normally when there is a lot of noise in the class I can slap a book on the desk for attention. When I tried that today they laughed. Then they started swearing at me and flipping me off.
I have never missed an armed guard in the room more than I did today.
Still I tried. I passed out brand new folders with a few sheets of college-ruled paper in them. College-ruled paper is a big deal to these kids, just like the kids in jail. Normally they get the wide-ruled paper and they tell me it makes them feel like they are back in elementary school. Like they’re not good enough for real paper. One girl opened the folder and saw the paper and then looked at me. "All this paper is for me to use? It’s so nice. Thank you." Her joy at such a simple gift gave me a shot of courage to continue.
I tried to talk. I got out a sentence. Maybe two. They turned their backs on me and started talking to each other loudly, making more rude comments. I searched my brain for something, anything to get their attention. I had nothing. I had stories to tell them but they wouldn’t listen. I walked around the room, looking at them, trying to make eye contact, asking a question or two. They laughed and made more rude comments. They told me they were here because they didn’t want to do anything and that I couldn’t make them. Of course everything was accented with more colorful language.
And they were right. I failed.
Standing there and letting them heap garbage words on me wouldn’t do either of us any good. So when the teacher brought the principal in and asked me if I wanted to go to another room I couldn’t help it. I nodded. I couldn’t do it. Not with these kids. Not with this group.
As I gathered up the folders there was one boy at the front who kept saying, "Not me. I wasn’t acting up." And I told him no, you were fine. You did good. It was little enough to offer. But it wasn’t enough. Not for me.
It’s the first time I have ever walked away from a group.
They moved me to another class. Less students. More focus. More of what I expected. Not a lot of interest. Not a lot of attention but they did participate. They all read out loud and all but one came to the front of the room to do it. That was big. They didn’t believe me when I told them about how I used to be so afraid when I did public speaking I had to add in extra time to throw-up before I went on stage.
We did little poems. Acrostics to help me get to know who they were. They picked a word and described it using the five senses. And right away one of them got it. He thought outside of the box. He used beautiful and specific words. Then another one spoke up without prompting, sharing her thoughts. I told them we’d be doing more things like this when I came back tomorrow and there were no groans, no complaints. I wanted to cry. I was so happy.
When my time was up I went back to the first class because the principal wanted to have the kids apologize to me. This time the room was silent but the hostility level was still high. I could feel it when I walked back in. The principal made a formal apology to me and a few of the students hollered out an "I’m sorry." But mostly they sat there and listened to the principal tell them how embarrassed she was, how hard she had worked for this program to be able to come to her school, and how, because of their actions today, they had lost the opportunity to work with me. They lost the opportunity to see their work on the walls of the museum. They lost the chance, for today, to be heard. As she spoke, I watched those kids slid down farther in their chairs. No one said a word.
I know the principal had to come down on them. They had been out of control and she was doing her job as best she could with what she had to deal with at that moment.
But I felt my heart breaking as listened. I thought about that girl who was looking forward to writing on real grown-up paper. I thought about that one kid who wanted me to know that he hadn’t been acting up. I thought about how every one of those kids was going to leave class today and go home to another place where they might not be heard.
I told them I was sorry too. I told them I was sorry I wasn’t going to get the chance to work with them, to help them tell their stories. I told them that every one of them was a person of value, that they all had stories to tell, and that it was important that they tell them. I said their stories might come out in conversations with a friend. A letter they write. A love poem. I told them the world needed to hear what they had to say and that I hoped one day find a way to tell their stories in an appropriate way.
And then I left.
I walked through the office and past a lounge where teachers gathered to ask me if I was going come back the next day. It had never dawned on me that I could say no. No one would have blamed me if I had.
In the corner of the room was a girl from the new class they gave me. I told the teachers that student had done good work today and the girl smiled. I told her about the museum exhibit and how her work would be on the walls for everyone to see.
Her mouth formed a surprised "O" and she said, "Really?"
I nodded and smiled back at her.
Would I be back tomorrow? Of course I would.
Today was second session of trying to teach poetry to a group of at-risk teens. I use the word trying on purpose. If you read yesterday’s post about the first session you know that I was scheduled for one group and then moved to a second class. That class actually did some good work yesterday but today they put another bunch of students in, 7 new ones I think, and most of them were of the same attitude as those in the first day’s class.
In other words, it was not a good day.
I decided to repeat things from the first day, teaching them a basic drill of learning to describe something with the five senses and hoping to encourage them to think outside of the box. I’ve used this drill before as a warm-up and eventually the kids get the hang of it knowing that they are going to have to start the session with taking a word like PROUD or KIND or HOPE and then stretching their imagination to describe it.
We did a group poem on the board and then I asked them to try it on their own. I passed out a sheet of what I call power words, positive words that I hope they can learn how to use to describe themselves. Most couldn’t grasp the idea of picking a word. I was flexible. Pick any word I said. A good word. Not a negative one. For a few that was enough to at least try to get started. I walked around the room trying to help but for the most part they ignored me, turning their back on me to talk to someone else. But a few wrote. A few lines. That was all.
I took in candy to reward the good behavior but they turned their nose up at it.
There was one student who was stirring things up with everyone around him, poking at his neighbors and refusing to write. I tried to talk to him. I told him how the guys in jail had written some great things and how I was looking forward to reading the great things he would write too. And he told me being in jail was easier because they had no choice. He did no work at all, just tried to incite everyone around him to act up.
I didn’t say it out lout but I had to agree with him. There are consequences for their actions or inactions in jail. Here, there were none.
What took us more than half an hour to do today would have been done in less than 10 minutes in any of my other classes. I spent more time asking kids not to talk or not to hit each other than I did teaching. When the session was through I felt like it had all been a waste of my time. I asked the teacher for any tips on how to work with these kids and she said she had none. All she could offer was that she would be there to step in if needed.
On the way home I thought about the other classes I’ve taught and how there is always a spark, somewhere. That one child you can see waiting for you to open the door for them. I don’t feel it here. I don’t see hope here and that is the saddest thing I can possibly type.
We will give it one more try on Thursday. I’ve asked them to consider hand-picking kids for the class, kids that want to be there, kids who have earned the right to participate in something special. I’m told that’s what they have done in the past they just didn’t, for some reason, do it for me.
I’ve never turned away from a class like this but depending on how things go at the next session, I might just have to accept that this time isn’t the right time, for this group of kids.
Today was the third and final session of trying to teach poetry to a group of at-risk teens.
We tried. We pulled a few students in that seemed like they might respond but then other kids came in that really didn’t belong there. Doors opened and shut. Kids hollered obscenities at each other. We had some stare downs. The teacher sat with a couple of the girls and kept them chatting because the alternative was that they would be egging the boys on to misbehave. There was one girl who was in my face with her antagonism, informing me in no uncertain words that she didn’t know me, she didn’t trust me, and she wasn’t going to share anything with me. I said fine, write that down.
She did not. And yet. And yet.
There were a few who tried. They put down a word and then another and when I asked them to expand on it, to give me more, they did. Not great brilliant heart wrenching poems but that was okay. They did what I asked and they did more than the teacher or the principal expected they would.
There was the boy who wrote about his pit bull puppy and how sweet it smelled and how it tried to growl but it couldn’t.
There was the girl who wrote about the sad sky.
There was the girl who said she was going to make an impact on the world.
There was the boy who said all marriages are bad but music, music is good, as he tap tap tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk.
But then there were the ones who poked holes in their papers instead of writing on them. And then the boy who said he’d been on the outs too long and he needed to go back to jail. The one who said it was safer in jail than it was on the outside.
In the end, after talking with the teacher and the principal we decided that it just wasn’t a good fit. Not now. These kids all have something to say. You can almost see the words, the stories bubbling up in them but the guys have to maintain their macho attitude and writing and sharing their writing means asking them to put that guard down.
When it was time for me to go the kids were out in the yard having lunch. I walked to talk to each of the one on one, to tell them that I wouldn’t be back. They were surprised and yet they weren’t. When I said I wasn’t coming back they said, “Oh no,” but then they shrugged a shoulder or nodded or said, “It’s because we’re bad, right?”
And I told them YOU are not bad. It’s hard to write and it’s harder still to write and share when you have classmates all around you telling you you’re stupid for even trying. I told them that words were a great tool for getting their stories told and that I hoped they would continue to try and write. And then I said goodbye.
The girl, the girl who was excited about maybe seeing her work on the walls of the museum ran after me.
“Thank you,” she said. Then she surprised me by giving me a hug.
Tears filled my eyes as I walked by to my car.
It was enough to almost make me change my mind but I know this was the right decision.
Tiny seeds were tossed down and maybe a few will take root. But someone else will have to tend the garden.
It’s Poetry Friday! And I’m trying to jump back on (and stay on) the Poetry bandwagon. I don’t know why it’s so tough for me except that I am in short supply of confidence in the poetry department so it always makes me hesitate and then, usually, the time has passed.
Tonight I realized I’d never posted more poems from my incarcerated teen poetry project. The past month their work has been on display at the deSaisset museum at Santa Clara university as part of the ArtsConnect program sponsored by Arts Council Silicon Valley. Below are the displays they made with their poems (kind of a 3D effect). The backgrounds are a combination of paint and collage. You can click on each photo (they are all different) to see the larger version which makes the rest of the poems legible but I’ve put a few here in the post as well.
It’s so very hard to get teenage boys to dig deep about the emotional stuff in their lives. Compound that by trying to get boys who are locked up, away from their family, their girlfriends, and in some cases, their children, and asking them to write about their feelings is rarely embraced. And yet that’s just what these boys did. Session after session they wrote their hearts out for me.
For those of you who don’t know about the project, there is a list of links at the bottom of the post to tell you a bit more.
Now, the student work.
|From Arts Connect 2010|
I’m the aspirin always getting taken from the medicine box
Trying to fix for a minute but it never lasts too long
I wanna be like a giraffe with my head about it all
I’m at the top of the ladder where I can never fall
I’m an eagle, a leader, I soar through the sky
I don’t play with the pigeons because their mind is not right
I’m caged like an animal but want to be set free
I’m a lion in the jungle I run my domain
an 18 year old looking forward to tomorrow
|From Arts Connect 2010|
THE POWER OF
I’m a strong individual
Power so strong, the guy who couldn’t get visible
People get a visual
See, but they don’t,cause my life is invisible
Do what I want and times can get critical
Powers so strong, it feels like life is a miracle
|From Arts Connect 2010|
I feel motivated to strive
And eat cuz I’m hungry,
I feel like a dodgeball
Being thrown around
I’m feeling sleepy
And language can’t explain
The unhappy thoughts in my mind
I want forgiveness
And to wake up to a better day
|From Arts Connect 2010|
I’m like the devil in disguise
I sound like bombs going off in a city, like death to a man
I look nice but inside I’m crazy in the mind
I smell like gun powder, evil in its darkest form
I taste bitter and sour, like snakes venom and nothing more.
I’m nothing nice
Kelly Polark has the Poetry Friday round-up today. Check out some of the other great posts.
*** For those of you who missed the series of posts about my 10 sessions teaching poetry to incarcerated young men, you can read them all here, in order:
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 1
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 2
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 3
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 4
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 5
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 6
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 7
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 8
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 9
- Incarcerated teens poetry 2010 class 1/session 10