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. 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.