Today was the second of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

The goal for the day was to get to a simile of 2-3 lines that they could then copy to a piece of art paper and illustrate with the art supplies I brought in. I told them the plan of the day and that art was only an option if the cooperated with me on the writing stuff. If not, we’d just keep writing.

The mood in the room was more relaxed this time, though still respectful. None of them talked directly to me but I was able to observe their interactions with their teacher and the guard in the room for the session. One student was feeling playful and there was some fun conversation between him and the guard and then him and the teacher. I enjoyed seeing them act like a normal group of young teens in class.

But they weren’t completely normal. They reminded me of that right away.

As I had on Monday I started the session with reading some poems to them in the hopes of getting some conversations going. Today I read two poems from HERE, BULLET. With the first one there was some interaction, not much, but better than on Monday. I had barely finished the second poem when someone spoke up. Someone that, after Monday’s session and what he had written, I had marked as not interested in participating. Not interested in making any changes in his life.

As always, this kind of work with kids surprises me.

This student kept his head down, staring at the paper in front of him. A pencil in his hand but the paper was blank. He was shaking his head back and forth.

I asked him if he wanted to respond to the poem.

He kept his head down and said, “No. I don’t mean to disrespect you but could you please not read any more from that book?”

He told me it reminded him too much of his other life and he didn’t want to remember that. He told me they all knew the mistakes they made and they didn’t need reminders of guns and war and killing to make them feel worse.

Each comment was prefaced with the, “I don’t mean to disrespect you.”

Once he started talking the rest of them added to his comments. Whether they all agreed with him or whether he was a leader in the group, I don’t know.

Did I feel bad for having read the poems? Yes and no.

Yes, because of course I am not going there to make them feel worse. I am going there to bring them hope and help them realize that it is never to late to make a change for good in your life.

No, because this student had the courage to speak up to me, a teacher, an authority figure. And he did it in a very respectful fashion.

I had to respond somehow and I surprised myself by staying calm. Later, in my car, I would beat myself up a little bit but in the room, I was okay.

I watched the regular teacher watching me. I watched the guard watching me. Everyone in the room was watching me except for this one student still bent over a blank sheet of paper.

I walked over to him and said, “Thank you.”

He didn’t look up so I continued to talk to the top of his head. ” I told him, “I can respect your point of view and I appreciate you being strong enough to speak up to me about it.”

I walked back to the center of the room and then realized I had to tell him one more thing.

I said, “When I came in here on Monday I had one opinion of you because of your actions that day. Today, because you spoke up to me and because of the way you handled yourself, you changed my mind. I now have a different opinion of you.”

This time his head popped up. His eyes met mine for just a moment before he gave one of those head ducks that substitutes for a multitude of responses.

After that, similes should have been a breeze.

They weren’t but that was okay. We struggled through them until everyone had something they could illustrate. After break I handed out colored pencils (to be counted before I left) and expected them to dive into the idea of color. Instead some of them were very meticulous with their drawing and others spent almost the entire time doing the most elaborate handwriting of their poems.

I asked them what subjects they liked so I could find poems they might enjoy. I was expecting cars or animals or something like that. To my surprise they asked for love poems. (Deeana – you were right!) Love poems and funny poems. To that I am adding poems that are filled with hope, poems that show you can change your life. As always I’m open to suggestions.

Hardest thing for me today? Still trying to get them to talk more than a sentence or two. That sort of comfort is only going to come with time. Well, and with me asking good questions which I can’t seem to keep in my head so I have to use lots of index cards. I think the nervousness I used to get in the classroom has disappeared but it took a part of memory with it when it left.

Next hardest thing? I didn’t do as good a job linking each exercise to an overall theme as I wanted to do.

Next hardest thing? Figuring out what to do while they are doing art. There are only so many rounds you can make of their tables looking over their shoulders while they are drawing but it doesn’t seem right to just sit down and wait for them.

Next hardest thing for me to do? Spell. Honestly I tell them not to worry about spelling but they are very concerned. Then they ask me how to spell words that I often mess up myself.

Grade for the day? I’m giving myself a B.

Friday the group that has given me the grant to be able to do this is coming in to audit the class. I hope I come up with some great ideas before then.