Today was the fifth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
It’s killing me. Not just the work, which is emotionally draining, but it is killing my spirit. My confidence is melting.
We had a new student today and she loves to talk and loves to be the center of attention. Major extrovert. Good for her but hard to teach around, especially with little backup from the teacher. Because she was new, the rest of the girls in the class were more interested in hearing her stories than doing their work. I brought in chocolate as a treat for the end of the day and their comment to that, Whatever. I don’t care.
We did the word courage as a group poem. It took twice as long than usual. I read to them from Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. It should have been a nice lead from the emotions we did with the group poem but when I asked them to write one of their own they all said, “I don’t get it. Can we do something else?”
We watched Sarah Kay perform her wonderful poem HANDS and managed about a two minute discussion on hands before they wrote their own. Only one person wanted to share.
I gave up and moved to art, asking them to trace their hands and decorate them, telling them it would be some of the art we would use to decorate the poetry collection we were building. I brought in lovely zentangle hands and encouraged them to try some tangles. Nope. Not a one.
The entire day the new student was up and walking around, going over to read the other student’s work, constantly in motion, constantly talking (but she did do the work.) No matter what I said, she couldn’t keep still for long. The teacher finally said something.
Something happened with one girl. She was called out of the room and when she came back she just slumped in her chair and cried. I couldn’t ask why but I offered her paper and encouraged her to write about it. I told her she could tear it up when she was done. She just nodded, clutched the pencil tightly in her fingers, and continued to cry.
I don’t know what else to do to try and reach them. They won’t talk, won’t interact so the time just stretches on and on.
This is hitting every single one of my insecurities. 7 more sessions to go. I have no idea what I will use to fill the time.
You have a lot of courage to do what you do. It reminds me of a movie about a teacher in an inner-city school. She didn’t give up and she did reach them. One session at a time, you can do it!
Love this idea, Diane. I need to see if I can get brave enough to pull it off. This whole experience is making me doubt everything I do.
Thanks, again, Anne. I love getting pep talks from you.
It is hard. Really hard.
I think they just don’t see the point. They don’t see that it will make any different in their lives at all. It won’t make their time go any easier.
Pep talk No 2: Yes they rally don’t get it. It is extremely sad when you see the transformation of perfectly “Normal” people who could have been whatever they wanted to be in the world. This of course with just a little bit of effort on their part. They are throwing their lives away.
Whilst I have also seen the other side of the coin. Some people who live terribly tragic lives and some fighting for their very existence. Fighting as hard as they can to keep going. Whilst there are others that despite everything just think the world owes them everything and they give nothing back. It just makes me both sad and angry. I would give any one of these pathetic girls the chance to walk in my shoes for just 1 day. They made choices to be where they are today. I didn’t and I am still making the best of it which is all I can do. Which is what they should do too.
So I really feel for you, I think you are fighting a losing battle. It is definitely their loss not yours you do a great job.
– Anne McKenna
I know the girls have tough lives. I hope that somewhere in this shared experience with me they find a tiny gem they can carry forward.
I agree so much with Anne…you are doing fabulous things here…just believe in yourself…we all do…Janet
Thank you so much Janet and I don’t even know you
Susan, I’m so sorry. But what’s happening isn’t because of you.
Thanks, Jeannine. Logically I know that but emotionally, well that’s a different story.
Susan, I wish every session could be great and that there’d be a click or spark. The reality is that that’s not going to happen. But the spark has happened before and it will happen again. You’re doing an amazing thing under very difficult circumstances, and you are making a difference. You are all human beings, more alike than different.
Those girls are in a very bad place and it’s unfortunate the teacher isn’t more supportive of what you’re doing (in terms of helping keep girls in check so you can do your lessons). I know from experience that all it takes is one kid to lead the entire class in another direction. I had a girl like that in my first year of teaching and it was crazy for a while but she ended up being one of my most devoted students who reached whole new levels. You don’t have the daily connection with these girls so it’s even harder. But what you do have is a giving spirit, and that is with you each and every session.
I wonder if you could sit down and talk to them, let them know what you want for them and then give them the chance to say what they want for themselves and their lives. Maybe you’ll all find a point of intersection that will help you all map out a mutual goal. Maybe they’d feel more of a sense of ownership in the sessions if they had a say in what happened, and then would make more of an effort. (I’m not at all implying you’re acting as a dictator in there, only that maybe a direct conversation might put you all on a better path together).
No matter what, Susan, you have my support and admiration.
Oh Tracy, thanks for this long and thoughtful reply. I like the idea of trying hear what they want for themselves and their lives. The stump me when I ask questions and get no response. I must need question asking lessons. 🙂
I’ve been pondering today what I might be able to share with them, more of my own story that may or may not connect them. All I can do is keep trying. But it ain’t easy.
You’ll find a way, Susan. I have faith in you and your generous spirit.
When you think of the years of trouble and hurt they have probably gone through, it’s not surprising that you may not be able to break through in a few sessions.
There is a quote from a poem by Archibald MacLeish that I absolutely love, and have used indirectly to inspire my writing:
“The world was always yours: You would not take it.”
I should confess that the poem (“Speech to a Crowd”) goes off in a different direction from what this one line means to me out of context. But, wow, doesn’t it say something huge? And I’m sure the girls in this class don’t believe that the world was ever theirs, and they may be right about that, but my point is that you can’t make anyone take it. You can give your time, your words, your caring, your chocolate. If they don’t take it now, maybe some of it will sink in later. Or maybe it won’t. But you are not responsible for that. You show up and give it and that is the only part you are responsible for.
It’s heart-breaking to see your gifts left sitting on the table; it’s so much more rewarding when the gifts are picked up and accepted. And I see you agonizing over the fact that perhaps you are not laying the right gifts on the table; if only you could find the right gifts, they would take them. But what more can you give than what you are bringing: caring, time, thought, words, and the willingness to listen? They may take those gifts and they may not, but if you show up and set those gifts out, you are doing what you can do. You are doing ALL you can do.
Oh Jenn, that quote is perfect. Thank you for saying.
I never really expect to ever break through so I’m always surprised when I do. I think the thing that is the toughest about this group is the absolute apathy of the group. Hostility is so much easier to deal with. The boys are daring me to make them care. But these girls, these broken girls, it’s different. Some of them have just given up. You can see it so clearly. Some of them have walls so thick I don’t know that they will ever let them down. And I can understand that. Some of them have had horrible things happen to them.
And you’re right, of course, all I can do is keep showing up and keep sharing.
I really appreciate your thoughtful response. It’s helped me feel better. Thank you.
something real (maybe)
I’m intrigued by what happened at the end with the crying girl. Something real might have happened there that would not have happened had you not been there, even if you never see the effects.
Re: something real (maybe)
That’s what I’m hoping, Freeman, that something hard got unlocked inside this crying girl. I keep hoping that little gems are falling into their pockets for them to find, later, when they are ready to open their hearts.
Wow! I admire you very much. I could never do what you are doing. I had a very rough childhood and teen years, but was never incarcerated. You might think I’d know a way to reach out to them, but I don’t. Teen years are so rough to grow through and even rougher when you are dealing with horrible situations, monsters, and nightmares. I like what dowbiggin, anne, and writerjenn had to say. They gave some good advice there. I know fear may be playing a major role for them. Fear was a major player in my life. Still is. For them, it might be fear in revealing themselves too much, being ridiculed and harassed by other girls outside of the class, appearing weak (which can be deadly, in more ways than one), or it might even be that they like the power of making things rough for you, which is childish, but it feels good to them to have some power. I would just try to be honest with them and tell them that you don’t feel that what you are doing is working for them. You are there for them. This is their class. What do they want to learn? What do they want to write?
You can’t help anyone if they don’t want to be helped. It’s frustrating and sad. I hope things go better for you. But here is something else for you to think about. You may very well be reaching them. They just don’t want you, or anyone else, to know it. (They don’t want to appear weak or give power to someone else over them.) So even if you reach just one of them, your time is worth it, even if you never know you reached them. *hugs*
Re: ellie wrote
Ellie, thank you these kind words. I surely do appreciate it.
Susan, I wonder if it might help shake things up to use material that looks familiar to them, like slam poetry or song lyrics. I’ve found using material like that, full of voice and attitude, is often a good way in with teens, especially if they’re coming from tough experiences. Dramatic monologues are also good — invent voices and characters if it’s hard for them to write their own lives and backgrounds.
*hugs* to you for doing this and for sticking through it, even through all of the toughness. You’re stronger than you realize.