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.