Today was the second of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. We were missing two girls today so we were a small group of just seven.
When I got there they were just finishing PE and complaining about working out. Two of the girls chose to not get credit rather than do the actual work and I was afraid I would be dealing with the same thing in the class. There was no happy, Hey Miss Susan! or What are we going to do today?
WhenI work with the boys, even from the first day, they are talking to me, asking questions. The boys are usually much less interested in poetry than they are in talking to me. The girls, while all of them may not be interested in poetry, they’d rather do that right now than connect to me. I understand. I’m new. One more person with power over them (they think) or the power to hurt them. It all takes time.
After doing these types of workshops for a while I’ve learned it usually takes 3-4 visits before I feel I’ve made a real connection. And I’m not naive enough to think I connect with each kid. There are always some I don’t reach. I know I can’t save the world. Not even this little corner of it. I can only plant seeds in what I hope is fertile ground.
We did another group poem to start the day. I let someone pick one of my word cards. (Someone always loves to pick a card, any card.) And the word they picked was joy. Here’s the group poem they did.
Joy smells like chocolate, apple pie, cookies, and pizza. It smells like baby lotion and fresh air after the rain.
Joy feels like butterflies in your stomach, that feeling you get on the roller coaster just before your stomach jumps. It makes you feel like smiling and your heart is racing. You feel like crying and giving hugs.
Joy tastes like Starbursts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, fresh-baked cookies for Santa. It tastes Thanksgiving dinner with all your loved ones.
Joy sounds like jingle-bells, oldies in a car downtown and applause from the audience after you just won your Grammy award. When you are climbing a mountain and you finally get to the top and you scream, that’s joy.
Yellow is the color of joy.
Joy looks like Santa and the Easter bunny. It looks monkeys jumping on the bed, no, it looks like someone dancing. Yeah, someone dancing for joy.
All but one of the girls offered up ideas for the poem which was pretty good. I shared a few poems that I liked and tried to get some discussion going but other than a couple of comments, the discussion fell flat. Part of that is they just don’t feel comfortable with me yet and part of that (probably most of it) is that I’m not asking the right questions.
I’ll have to brainstorm more questions for the next set of poems I share. I think my insecurities really ramp up when I ask a question and there is silence. The four other adults in the room heard me but don’t speak up. (In other classes the teacher, probation officer or aides have all spoken up. Not here.) We moved on to what I was thinking of as another warm-up, the I remember poems. I had them brainstorm some things they remembered (recent past and more distant past) with no stipulations on happy or sad memories. I read them a few examples and then let them write.
After ten minutes, everyone was done except for one girl. She was one of the ones not interested in poetry. A bit of a smart aleck. Last visit she was willing to miss getting her fine art credits if it meant she had to write poetry and share what she had written.
I went over to check on her. She said she was writing about a friend she made in elementary school. She paused and then said, “He died last year.”
I asked her if writing it out was helping and she said yes.
We went around the room and everyone else shared their I remember poems. They were good. Better than I think they thought they could be. A few of them surprised the teacher. (I love it when that happens.) I looked over at the girl in the back of the room and asked her if she was done yet. She said no but promised she would finish it if I would just let her write. I nodded. At least she was writing. And she wasn’t mouthing off to stir things up. She bent back over her paper.
I shared Maya Angelou’s poem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. We talked about fears a little bit and I read some examples of variations of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me that some other students had written. Then I turned them loose to write their own versions. When I checked in on the girl in the back of the room she was hunched even closer to her paper, her nose almost touching her desk. I leaned close and asked her if she was done and she shook her head no. The rest of the class shared their new poems to much snapping and clapping. (Snapping is what they use instead of applause here and in many of the units but try as I might, I can’t seem to get in the habit of snapping instead of clapping.) I finished up by reading a few more pages of Hugging the Rock. I got a few responses to my questions but again, not much. I was getting ready to thank them for their participation in the day when a hand popped up in the back of the room.
“Done! I’m done.” The teacher was surprised but complimented the girl on finishing the assignment when she had a habit of blowing things off. I asked her if she wanted to read it. She shook her head. I asked if she wanted me to read it for her and she said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “Please.”
That girl, that sullen, I don’t want to do anything and I’d rather have an F girl, she wrote THREE PAGES. Both sides. As I read, she curled up into a ball on her chair, pulling her shirt up to cover her face, all but her eyes which stared at the desk. I read about how she remembered her friend that she met when she was in the fourth grade. I read about how she remembered him sticking up for her when things were tough, and how she remembered all the fun they had together. I read about how she remembered when he was changing into a difficult teen and how she consoled him when he broke up with his girlfriend. I read about how she remembered her own life turning upside down, about how her father kicked her in the stomach and how CPS took her away. I read about how she remembered lashing out, running away, spiraling downward. I read about how she remembered this friend, this special best friend, shaking her, telling her to get her crap together because she was better than this.I read about how she remembered being sent from home to home to home until she landed where she is today.
And then I read. . . I read about how she remembered getting a phone call from her cousin last year and how she remembered finding out that this friend, this special best friend that she always knew she could count on, was dead.
When I finished reading there was silence in the room. The author of this powerful piece was still hunched over her desk, tears streaming down her cheeks. Iput my hand on her shoulder and she was shaking. I wanted to pull this young woman into my arms and hold her and let her cry as much as she wanted but of course, I couldn’t do that. I thanked her for the beautiful writing, thanked her for sharing her precious memory with us.
The room exploded in applause.
This is why I write poetry. This is why I teach poetry.
When we let it, poetry heals.