Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak at our county budget planning session in support of the Arts Council program that gave me a grant for my incarcerated teens poetry project. There were several speakers who had several minutes to talk about how they were involved with various Arts Council projects. I prepped a 1, 2, and 3 minute talk and then, as often happens, altered it a bit when I was there. I told a few people that I would post what I said. Here’s the longest version. I didn’t get to say all of it but I did share most of it.

I am here to speak on behalf of the Arts Connect program which has given me grants to go into alternative schools and teach what I know how to do best . . . spill your guts on paper. But I am not only here to speak for the Arts Council. I am here to speak for the kids. They are locked up both literally and metaphorically. They have been in and of gangs, jail, and foster homes. They have learning problems, language problems, and a giant dose of attitude – but they all have something to say.

The lonely boy whose dad only cared about getting drunk and smacking him around wrote love poems for his girlfriend.

The boy who was an overachiever at everything, including being a gang member, wrote long poems about his family and how much they meant to him.

The boy who knew he might never get out of jail again wrote poems of apology to his mother.

Powerful stuff. Becoming involved in poetry helped open the prison doors of their souls. They became vulnerable and real. The simple act of me showing up every session, no matter how hard they pushed me away, showed them someone cared. It gave them hope. And if we can give them hope, we can help them make a change in their life.

Artists and musicians and writers need to go into these schools to work with challenged youth. We need to dare these kids to look at their lives differently. We need to give them new tools for expressing themselves.

A few years ago I did a year long residency at another alternative school. One of the most difficult students was Edgar. He was big, built like a battering ram. He had escaped a detention facility and had been on the run for two years. At sixteen he was back in the classroom and wearing an electronic surveillance ankle bracelet. He wrote about gang life, getting drunk, and hurting people.

He was the only student who ever made me feel afraid and I never really felt like I connected with him until the day I asked the class, “If you could go back and change something in your life, what would change and why?”

Some kids went right to work writing. But not Edgar. He just leaned over the desk and held his head in his hands. When I asked him what was wrong he told me he didn’t have enough paper. I put a stack of paper on his desk.

Then he told me no, he meant, there wasn’t enough paper in the world for him to write about it all. He said he’d change everything. Then he said that it didn’t matter. That he had screwed up, he was going to court the next week, and he knew he was going to be locked up again.

I didn’t ask any questions. I just told him to write. All the other students finished and left but Edgar kept on writing. When he finally got ready to go he told me that writing was hard but that it made him think.

And sometimes it even made him feel sorry for the things he had done.

That’s why we need programs like Arts Connect.