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Today was the fifth of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

We are coming close to the end of the sessions. Today I wanted to work on something a bit more poetic, more sensory. I also wanted to get them to revise some of their previous work. Last night I went through their folders (I bring them back and forth with me each time) and picked two of the strongest pieces and typed them up. But I didn't give them to them right away.

I put some words on the board, strong and positive words. Then we brainstormed sensory words grouped under the five senses.  After that I read to them from the Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler. Their assignment was to pick one of the positive words and describe it as though it were a person using as many sensory details as they could. This was very hard for them, to use their imagination in that way. They couldn't grasp the idea that courage or joy was a person. They couldn't imagine what love would taste like.

Then they asked for another word to be added to the list.


I wrote FREEDOM on the board and soon the room was quiet while they wrote. I haven't read their papers yet but I did walk around and read a bit while they were working on them and I think some of them did quite well.

After that I handed out their typed poems and talked to them a bit about revision. I told them it was important to make sure that they used just the right word in order to make sure that the reader understood just what they wanted to say. We talked about the difference between the right and the almost right word. They weren't totally convinced so I didn't expect much work out of them but they surprised me. Most, if not all, of them made changes to at least one of the pieces.

Then it was time for art. I'd say it was their favorite part of the day but not because they all love art but because it is more freeing, more chattering going on.

I had planned on bringing back some of their previous art pieces and letting them continue to work on them but instead I brought something new. I handed each of them a hand mirror (I got permission first to bring in the mirrors) and told them today we would draw self-portraits.

The reaction from them was totally unexpected.

Not about the drawing.

About the mirrors.

Where they are being detained there is one mirror in the center of a public place and it is more like a piece of polished metal with scratches on it. They line up in front of the tiny shiny spot every day to try and shave. When I gave them the mirrors  I gave them a chance to see themselves as they are now for the first time in a very long time.

I watched their guard drop, as they laughed, running their hands over the top of their hair, checking out their sideburns, and of course, popping zits. :) Then they teamed up, holding one mirror behind another so they could each see the backs of their necks, their ears, their tattoos. It was an unexpected party time, boys being boys, talking about how good looking they were.

Eventually I got them to focus on the drawing part of the assignment and they started using the mirrors to try and sketch themselves. I don't think any of them are in danger of being identified by their portraits when we put the display up in the museum but after some initial struggles, they all seemed to get into it.

The sad part of the day was that there was an incident with one boy that caused the guard to remove him from the class. I may not have agreed with the reasoning behind it but I know that they have to stick to their rules.

There is also one boy who, for the last three sessions, has shut me out. He didn't at first. He participated just fine. Now he is fine with everyone else but suddenly he is anti-me. I don't know what happened, if I said something to him that was taken the wrong way or what. He starts to work, then as I come around he scratches it out. He is the most gifted artist in the class but now he won't draw when I am there. I asked him today, what I had done and he just shook his head. 

I said, "Okay, you're mad at me, I just don't know why."
And he said, "Yep." 

It hurts. But I need to let it go. I only have two sessions left with them.  I know I am doing my best. I am bringing in experiences and giving them chances and listening to what they want to say, to write, to draw. I am lighting candles that I hope will flame into something positive for at least some of them.

I can try, but I can't touch them all.

*** Click here to read all the posts in this series.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 18 comments — Leave comment )
January 24th, 2009 11:50 am (UTC)
I love following your poetry project with these young prisoners, Susan! It's so touching. Thanks for posting.
(Deleted comment)
January 24th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you both very much.

I have to write it all out so I can remember! ;)
January 24th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
January 24th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I used your DJ remix description to them. It might have been a tipping point. :)
January 24th, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
Susan, I love these posts. You are making such a difference to these boys--the hardest thing is thinking about whether or not it will last for any of them, but I think somewhere, it's going to stay.

The "mad" boy--I know its not hte same as ANY teen boy, but this sounds so familiar. He may not even be trying to hold something over you--just that boy thing of why talk about it, it just makes it worse. Maybe he needed you to acknowledge that you'd "done" something and knew it, and maybe the time between this time and next wil be enough for him to come back? Hoping so!
January 24th, 2009 06:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Becky. It's one of those things you really need to do on faith because there's no way to measure it ever making a difference.

As for the one who is mad, who knows. I know a couple sessions ago he got upset when I suggested he try harder. He is also doing a balancing act of his own because he is the only one who knows he is getting out in a couple of months.
January 24th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
Don't berate yourself. And make no mistake - you touched that kid, he just doesn't know what to do with it. His anger at you is almost undoubtedly not really at you, but at himself, only he doesn't know how to process that sort of thing. I hope that he learns.

Sounds like the guys are making some real progress. Well done, you!
January 24th, 2009 06:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I wish I could have had a video camera to capture their reactions with the mirror. It was so unexpected. I had heard talk, especially from this one boy, about how long it had been since he had really seen himself, but I still didn't think the mirrors would be such a hit.
(Deleted comment)
January 24th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
Huh, I never think of it as being brave, so thank you.

I still feel like an absolute klutz with the teaching part.....they ask me questions I don't know the answer to and yet I know the regular teacher does but she stays quiet. I can't extend discussions with them because I still can't remember what I know I know.

I am trying to soak up all that I can which is why I am writing these long posts, to help me remember. I really would like to spend some time just sitting there, seeing the place through their eyes, and am going to ask if I can have a more up close tour inside their rooms and such. The pod area they are in is self-contained and very small.
January 24th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
I'm helping out with a group doing digital stories, and it's fascinating how hard it is to convey the idea of putting concrete images to the abstract emotions in their stories, which is what one does when one chooses pictures for them. I hadn't appreciated how hard a thing that was to learn, before.
January 24th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
It is hard but I was impressed with them at least trying. These poor kids haven't been taught to think with their imagination. And because of their detainment, they need to focus on the truth only, calling things exactly as they are not as they might imagine.

Your project sounds interesting. Can you say any more about it?
January 24th, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
I'm a newcomer to helping with the group, which is run by local writer Marge Pellegrino, who through the Owl and Panther project works with refugee children (and their parents) to help them tell their stories. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results.

The anthology they did a couple of years ago, Writing out of the Darkness, was pretty amazing, too.
January 27th, 2009 12:40 am (UTC)
Oh that sounds great. I only just learned of a program in our area called the Beat Within. They go into the prisons and help kids tell their stories and then publish them.
January 24th, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC)
Also, and completely unrelated, I just saw this quote in your sidebar, and love it:

"A writer either speaks to adults and bores kids, or speaks to kids and upsets adults."
--Ursula K. LeGuin
January 24th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
I am always excited to read about your sessions with these boys, and I am amazed at the wonderful projects you come up with to introduce them to their inner selves. You are doing such wonderful, brave work with them. And I know that many of them will remember it for a long time--even the one who's "mad" at you. If he is, it may be because you hit a nerve in him somehow, and in time, he'll realize that it's because something within himself needs to change.

Looking forward to the last 2 sessions. :-)
January 27th, 2009 12:41 am (UTC)
Thanks for this support. I really need it after days like today. Sigh. It is hard work but I am trying to remember that it is good work too.
January 25th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
As a teacher, I can see the growth in the students you describe in just this short time. As for the student who has shut you down, you have to reach someone in the first place to get this kind of reaction.

I so love the reaction to the mirror activity. Oh the things we take for granted.

I know how much time and energy this has taken, and it will soon (too soon) be over, so please trust that you are making a difference. I believe that in my heart, and hope you do as well.
January 27th, 2009 12:43 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for giving me the teacher's insight. I wish I had teacher training so I could be a better teacher for them. There are so many things I feel like I am doing wrong or else just not right enough.

The mirrors still amaze me. I let them have them again today, for a short time, and it was mostly all about admiring themselves which seemed like a good thing for them today. If they feel like they look good, perhaps they will start to put actions into place to be more good in other ways.

Yes, it will be coming to a close soon and it is very hard to know, to feel, that I am making a difference. I'm not getting any vibes from the teacher one way or the other either so that makes it hard.

( 18 comments — Leave comment )

Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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