Today was the fourth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
It was not a good day.
I confess, I like walking into a classroom of boys and being greeted with mostly positive energy. When I walk into the girl’s class, I am mostly ignored. I know they are in lock up and have no choice about attending the class. I know they have a lot of issues. But some days, well, as any teacher knows some days are harder than others.
They picked a word for their group poem, worked on it for a while but without much energy. They used it more as an excuse to chatter about other things and call out put-downs to each other. Halfway through they begged for another word and said they would do better. Softie that I am, I agreed to switch. We changed from TRUTH to LIES but the group poem fizzled out when every other comment from a girl was a negative about someone’s love life. There was no group poem today.
We moved on to haiku which they had requested to do. I handed out a sheet of paper with a dozen haiku on it. I asked them to read them then pick one they liked and tell me what they liked about it. I had barely turned around when they started with, “I don’t get it. I don’t know what to do.” Which quickly spiraled downward to, “This is dumb.”
But they did it. This much credit I’ll give them. All but one girl contributed thoughts about the haiku they read.
Then we talked about the “season” words in haiku and I asked them to find the season words in the samples they had. They did okay with that. But that wasn’t writing.
When I ask them to write their own haiku (after more discussion and brainstorming) it was just more chatter. I knew I didn’t have control of the class but I didn’t know what to do to get it back again. (That’s if I ever had it in the first place.) This is one of those times that I really wish I was a formally trained teacher with more experience and training to handle situations like this. When the few that wrote shared their work it was a giant step backwards from what they had done before. GIANT step.
I don’t think it was the haiku. I think they just decided that today was the day they weren’t going to write, weren’t going to work, weren’t going to cooperate. The girl who had written the poem that made her (and me) cry on Friday had lost her privileges for the week so she opted out of everything saying it didn’t matter what she did because she was already screwed. She kept mouthing out to everyone around her.
Midway we stopped to talk about what they did or didn’t like about poetry. Most of them said they liked poetry fine as long as they could write it on their own time and not in a forced poetry class. I understand them not wanting to write and being half-assed about it all but still, they are in lock up and they have to follow the rules, get credits toward graduation, etc.
No matter what I asked them the answer was no or I don’t care.
The two hours felt like 8 and I was completely drained when I was done.
I think this was one of the testing sessions that tends to happen each time I teach in lock-up situations. I need to come up with some really good and fun poetry lessons to share on Friday. I’m thinking of YouTube videos of poets performing their work. I also need to come in full of confidence to show them they haven’t beaten me.
I think what is the hardest about days like this is that I know in my heart how poetry and writing can help them think about their lives differently, how it can help them begin to heal. I know how writing things down can make things better, even if it is just for a sliver of that particular moment. I know how writing has saved me until I was strong enough to save myself.
But I can’t tell them that. I can only try to light a path.