This past week I’ve been on shut-down from the day job which meant an unplanned vacation on my part. The last couple of times I’ve taken PTO this year have been to settle into our new home after we moved. Though the house is far from “done” (isn’t every home a constant work-in-progress?) I had plans for this one. Plans that including my computer. Alas it was not plans to dive deeply into my next novel (though some plotting did take place) but instead I decided it was the perfect time to clean up my computer and organize my files. They were in even more of a mess than usual due to a recent computer crash (not hard drive, thank goodness) and poor backup habits on my part. My husband recently installed a humongous Raid server setup for autobacks and triple fail protection so it was my turn to do clean-up, I should have been dismayed at the mess I found (11 copies of the video of my grandson taking his first steps – and he’s 3 years-old now!) but in reality I knew what I would be getting into. I’m a packrat both virtually and in real life.
The fun part though was finding old pieces, snippets that probably won’t go anywhere but certainly needed to be saved. I also found it interesting to look at the various stages in my life based on the files I’ve moved from computer to computer over the last 10 years. I decided to post one of my favorites as a way of getting back to blogging. The was written during a really crazy time in my life. I was working the day job, teaching for ICL and then I got a grant from the Arts Council of Silicon Valley to teach writing to a group of at-risk kids in rough part of town. Ac ouple of days a week I would go to work, take a long lunch and head over to the school and teach for an hour then come back to work and finish my day. I’m still not sure how I managed it all. And in truth, some days I’m not so sure I managed except in my own imagination.
Here’s a piece I wrote in the middle of it all. (note – all the names have been changed.)
NOT ENOUGH PAPER IN THE WORLD
As a children’s author I am always looking for opportunities to spend time in the classroom working with children and help them get excited about writing. When I got the chance to spend an entire school year as the Artist in Residence for a local school I was both eager and apprehensive. I had done a short term residency for the school the previous year so I knew what kind of kids I could expect – kids that for one reason or another had been kicked out of traditional school. Some had emotional troubles. Others were there as a last chance before being sent to a detention facility. They were the kids that often fell between the cracks of bureaucracy for any variety of reasons. They had been in and of gangs, jail, and foster homes. They had learning problems, languages problems, and a giant dose of attitude.
I wanted to show them a way out. I wanted to show them that if they could read, they could go anywhere, and if they could write, they would always have a way to communicate their feelings to the world.
In the beginning the kids were hesitant and distrustful. Most of them hated reading and writing because they had experienced so little success with these skills. I was a middleclass white woman walking into a land where wearing the wrong color sweatshirt could get me shot. They did their best to try to scare me away but every Tuesday and Thursday I kept coming back, always hoping to convince them to pour their thoughts and feelings out on paper. I told them they could write whatever they wanted as long as they told the truth on paper. I felt sure that if they could learn to write honestly about themselves they could perhaps find a way out of the hopelessness they often felt about their lives.
After a few months, my enthusiasm alone wasn’t enough to carry me through my visits. I just couldn’t see that I was making a difference with any of the kids. Every week it seemed that one more was expelled; two new ones showed up, and I had to start the process of building their trust in me all over again. Those that had been there since the beginning of the year didn’t seem to care if I came to class or not. The strain of giving them my emotional all was taking its toll on the rest of my life. I didn’t feel like much of a teacher or a writer and I was sure there had to be a better way to earn a living than trying to force words out of kids who had nothing to say.
One of the most difficult students was Eduardo. He had been in a youth detention facility, escaped, and on the run on his own for almost two years. At sixteen he was back in the classroom and wearing an electronic surveillance ankle bracelet. He didn’t want to be in school but he didn’t want to be in jail. He wrote about gangs and about 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 we began our self-portraits.
“Today we’ll write about ourselves,” I told them.
We warmed up with some writing exercises. I read a sentence and they answered it. They were used to this so after the typical grumbling they got down to work. Then I asked, “If you could go back and change something in your life, what would change and why?”
Pencils stopped moving.
Alice chewed on her hair and drew pictures instead.
Sam pulled his legs up on his chair and hugged his knees. “Dammit,” he said. Which was his response to anything that forced him outside his safety net. “Dammit. I ain’t doing it, dammit.”
Daniel played with the earring in his tongue and then bent over his paper and started writing furiously.
Than sharpened his pencil down to a stub, sat back down, and put his head on his desk.
“I don’t understand,” said Mikey. Mikey never understood because he never really listened.
Diego met my eyes.
“You don’t have to share this,” I told him. “It’s just for you. Write it in Spanish if that makes it easier.”
I looked around the room and watched while some wrote, some doodled, and some pretended like they hadn’t heard a word I had said. Then I saw Eduardo. Elbows on the table, he held his head in his hands. His body shook, but not with rage. I knelt beside him and rested my hand on his back. He looked up and wiped away his tears with the back of his hand.
“I don’t have enough paper,” he said.
I started to move to my bag where I kept a ready supply of blank paper.
“No,” he said. “I mean, there’s not enough paper in the world for me to write about it all. I’d change everything.”
I didn’t ask any questions, just encouraged him to write.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I screwed up. I’m going to be locked up again. I go back to court next week but I already know what will happen.”
He shooed me away and I moved to the back of the room, giving them all the space to write or not write as they saw fit. For the rest of the class the students were silent, an unusual occurrence, except for the occasional “dammit” from Sam. As they left, the brought their portfolios back to me, their writing all tucked safely inside, out of sight of the teacher and the other students.
Eduardo was the last to go. He took a last look at what he had written then stood up.
His eyes met mine, and I felt it, that special connection a teacher gets when they know they have finally gotten through to a difficult student.
“Will you write to me in prison? Like you do here?”
He handed me the portfolio, making sure his was at the top of the stack.
“Writing is hard, but you make me think. And sometimes,” he said, “you even make me feel sorry.”
Wow, Susan, that is quite a story. Thank you so much for sharing it.
It was quite an experience at the time.
Susan, thanks for sharing this powerful story. “Teacher changes the world for a group of at-risk kids” always looks great and passionate and fun in movies. But in real life, it’s hard and intimidating and exhausting. But you broke through to the human side of this kid, the scared side, and I think you made him feel acknowledged, made him feel, period. Congratulations.
Thanks, Laura. It was nice to think that for a short time, perhaps I made a difference.
Wow! I love that story. Thanks for sharing. And for being brave and committed!
You made a difference! I bet at least some of those kids are still journaling occasionally.
I’d like to think that some of them are still writing or at least perhaps not hating to write so much.
That was an incredibly powerful story. You brought me to tears. Thanks for sharing that.
You’re welcome. I’m glad to hear it touched you. It still has the power to bring me to tears when I think back on it.
Gah! You should have put a tissue alert at the top!!
Excellent writing, Susan. Thank you for sharing it.
Thanks for reading along, Kelly.
Amazing story. Thanks for sharing.
You really captured why teachers keep going back. I’m glad you persevered.
I’m glad I stuck it out too but man, some days were so hard.
Great story. Very powerful. I always feel like art could heal the world if everyone had the place, the freedom, the permission to do it (from within and without). It’s always nice to hear about a little bit of it getting through to someone who needs it. Thanks for sharing.
I so agree – art could heal the world if we would let it. And sometimes it is that inner permission that is the most difficult to grant…at any age. Sigh.