Today was the last of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.
I won’t pretend it was easy to go back there today. It wasn’t. Not after the rough day on Monday. I really had to psyche myself up, reread all the supportive comments people had left me, and then apply my usual mode of dealing with things I can’t deal with – fake it til you make it.
I had asked for permission to bring in some snacks for our last day and permission was granted but I wasn’t feeling much like partying when I stopped at the grocery store. Still I loaded up on tortilla chips, super hot salsas (tip from the teacher) and some cookies. But my confidence was pretty much shot.
I was up until 2am this morning making sure I had all their work typed up for them and scanning all their art. I kept the originals of the self-portraits for the display, as well as a few other pieces of art and gave the rest back to them. I made a copy of everything for the teacher as she has to give them a grade. I had to remove the Velcro closures on their portfolios in order for them to be able to keep them.
I wrote each boy a letter, personalized just for them and put it in a colored envelope. Then I went to bed but didn’t sleep.
This morning I struggled for a long time over what we would do writing-wise today and changed my mind three times.
When I got there I asked the teacher how they were doing and she said they were lazy today and might not want to work at all. She also said that the one boy who made me the object of his hate me had decided he was sick so he could leave class before I arrived. I was okay with that. Just looking at his self-portrait last night had brought it all back again. Not having to deal with him today was a bonus in my book.
She also said they were under a tighter watch as there had been an escape the night before so I really had no idea what to expect from the group when I went in. One of the avid writers, one who really spent a lot of time on all his work and obviously enjoyed the writing, was at the dentist. I was sad that he wasn’t able to be there with us.
The mood seemed good in the room and they asked for something fun and easy. They have always been good at brainstorming and today they were no exception. We filled the board with words and phrases and then edited for our favorites. I rewrote it on the board and they did a final edit. I decided at the last minute to do a group poem with them that we could do on the board, then revise together. A format I came up with last night and would serve as a model for a poem they would do on their own.
Here is the group poem they wrote.
has a beautiful life to it.
You sound like happiness, sadness, love
taste like fresh strawberries
and feel like soft skin, sandpaper, a brick wall.
Poetry is all the colors of the rainbow
and smells like freedom, incarceration, a sexy girl.
Oh poetry, you drive me crazy.
You make me want to scream, to feel, to heal.
You look like sunshine and moonlight in the city.
Poetry is feelings on paper.
After that they did one last poem on their own and as they finished, I handed out their folders and the letters. They were upset that I had to remove the Velcro but soon the room was buzzing as they sorted through the folders to see what they had accomplished. The guard today was new to me and they were anxious to show off all their work. They told him the story of the mirrors and the massive zit-popping orgy that ensued when they first saw themselves. Then they opened the letters and immediately had to check and see who had the longest one. They shared them with the guard and asked me if they could share them with the judge.
My tough guy, the one who stood up to me on day two, said, “I wish I had known you were writing letters. We could have written you letters too.” I told him he still could. I would come down anytime to pick them up.
When I brought out the snacks they were so surprised. The choruses of thank-yous were nice to hear. My tough guy spoke up again and said, “You didn’t have to do that for us.”
I just smiled at him feeling very glad that I had. My missing writer returned from the dentist right about then and I don’t think I was imagining the light in his eyes when he came into the room. Later the teacher told me that he was really worried and hadn’t wanted to miss the last day.
While they ate I asked them if they wanted to help me with my current book, Flyboy’s story. And they said yes. One, normally a jokester who takes nothing seriously, surprised me. He said it was only right for them to try and help me because I had already helped them so much. I found it a little hard to speak again right away after he said that.
So I told them about Flyboy and the troubles he was having. I asked their input on what a teenage boy would do in some of the situations I was putting Flyboy in. It felt good to hear their reactions match what I was doing with the plot. Sometimes, before I even got that far in the story, they’d pipe up with a suggestion and I would smile to myself because I had already written that very scene.
They hated the mom right along with me and wanted her dead. They were okay with him having a girlfriend or not having one and if he had one, it was okay if she did some things, even flying, better than he did. They understood why some of the things happened to Flyboy and his dad. They didn’t like it but they understood.
I asked them if they thought Flyboy would be able to forgive, as he needs to do in this story, and they said yes.
They said that with enough love, it was possible.
It was a good way to end the session because really, that’s what it was all about for me.
I love words. I believe they have enormous power. Power to do good, power to heal, power to bring hope.
It wasn’t an easy set of workshops but I wouldn’t have missed doing it for anything. And I would do it again and again. I asked them to each write down something they got out of the workshops and my favorite answer (besides the one who said he learned that revision wasn’t as bad as he thought) was the one who said he learned that he could get relief when he expressed his feelings on paper.
Color me happy. Mission accomplished.
As they were leaving they all shouted out more thank yous. I was pretty sure it was for the food. That’s okay. It was nice to see them filling their plates like regular teenagers enjoying an afterschool snack.The room was empty and I was ready to go. One student came back and held out his hand.
I shook it and he looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
He didn’t say anything else but I got the message just the same. And as clichéd as it may sound, It made everything worthwhile.
Grade for it all – – – I’m giving myself an A.