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

It was not a good day. Not good at all. Before we even started the guard gave them another talking to about being quiet and listening to me and paying attention. I think his speaking up has made it more difficult for me but I don't feel like I can say anything to him because of the situation I am working in.

We did love poems. It was their idea. But of course they suggested it a few sessions ago and I made them wait until today. My thought was that since it was their idea they would be more into it. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I read some love poems. I even read an I love you NOT poem by Bruce Lansky. They laughed. They started quoting song lyrics. So we brainstormed love terms on the board. I started simple and asked them to think about the little candy Valentine's Day hearts and what was written on them. I wrote the words on the board. Then they started calling out longer phrases, good ones. I wrote them on the board.

We worked together a bit more and then I turned them loose to work on their own love poem....or not love poem. The grumbling rose.

"I don't love anyone. I have nothing to say. I don't want to do this. I'm bored. This is stupid."

Most of the comments were familiar. I got variants of the same ones every visit and eventually they would knuckle down and start to write.

The boy who gave me so much trouble the first couple of sessions complained and then actually wrote something honest to who he was.

Then when I went around to read and help I asked one boy if he said he had someone to write about and he said yes. He was about 10 inches from my face and he kept his voice low enough so that he and I were the only ones who heard. He said, "You. I hate you.You got me in trouble. I talked to staff and they said you told them I was causing trouble. You screwed up my program and now I can't do anything. It's all your fault. I hate you. I wish you'd never come. " and so much more. 

I kept telling myself not to buy into their drama but in the back of my mind there was this running voice saying mean things myself like, "I didn't say anything. You got yourself in trouble. And much more."

Then I went to one of the other boys who is usually cooperative and he said he wanted to write about this girl that he liked but he got locked up before he got the chance to tell her that he liked her. So we talked about how he could start it and he had written down, "I never told you" and I told him that would be a great list poem (we've done those) and he could start every line with that and figure out a frame for the beginning and the ending. So then he wanted to brainstorm some more and I was thinking that finally he was back with the program. I'm throwing out ideas and I said, "I never told you that I watch you...." and I'm thinking about how you watch someone across the room and he explodes and said I was calling him a stalker and went off for several minutes and stopped writing for the rest of the session.
Two of them yelled at me that everything had to rhyme or it was no good, even though we have discussed that poems don't need to rhyme.
The good artist said he was going to tear up all his drawings and he didn't want me to share anything at the museum. Then the other good artist said the same thing, that he didn't want anything posted in the museum. After that no one wanted anything to be displayed, even though their names won't be on them.

I felt like a babysitter who got locked in the bathroom while the kids I was supposed to be taking care of turned the house upside down.

No steps forward today.

I don't know how many steps backward.

Wednesday is my last day with them. It is hard to think about what to do for the final session. My plan was to do part day of writing, I don't know what kind yet, and then, party time. I got permission to bring in some snacks for them though I have to say, it was hard to make myself go shopping for them after a day like this.

Grade for the day. B minus.
Today I'm finding it hard to see that what I am doing there is making any sort of difference.


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


( 33 comments — Leave comment )
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January 27th, 2009 03:26 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm so sorry, Susan. I can't even think what to say--this would feel so bad. I still think you are making a difference and doing a good thing, but it must be so hard.
January 27th, 2009 05:08 am (UTC)
Thanks, Becky. Yes, it is hard.
January 27th, 2009 03:26 am (UTC)
It sounds like it was a rough day. Don't beat yourself up about it - we all have those days. It is especially difficult because of the teacher and guard in the room. I'm sure their presence influences the boys, too. Keep your head up. You're making a difference in their lives, even if they don't recognize it yet.
I hope your last session goes well.
January 27th, 2009 05:09 am (UTC)
Yes I'm sure that having the other adults in the room has to have an effect on them. Sigh. However I don't think I would want to be alone with them either.

Thanks for the support.

Edited at 2009-01-27 05:09 am (UTC)
January 27th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
Oh, Susan. I'm sorry it was a rough day. Kids, even these kids, can turn on a dime, though, and sometimes they push and test you just to see if you'll keep coming back, or if you'll turn your back on them like so many people have before. But it can be *hell* to stick with kids in a regular classroom when they start doing this--I can't imagine what it's like in your situation.

Keep in mind that most of the effect you're having on them--and it *is* a positive effect--won't be something they can see or articulate or act upon for a long time. But it's there, long term. How many times do we remember, cling to, some offhand comment someone who had a little more faith in us than the rest of the world makes? They might not ever remember saying it, but to us, it's exactly what we need to here--and half the time we never even tell that person how much they helped.

Who knows what good you're doing short or long term? No one--and those kids are in the worst possible position to judge your effect right now. So don't let them judge you; there will probably be something you say on Wednesday, something you don't even think about at the time, that will help at least one of them in some way.

*hugs* Stay strong. You're really incredible for taking this on.
January 27th, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
Thank you. I know I have to remember that whatever effect might happen will be there long after I'm gone.

All hugs greatly appreciated.
January 27th, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)
I doubt it was a B-. The results of what you are giving them are something you most likely will never see.

Give yourself an A+, most people don't have the guts and heart to do what you've done.
January 27th, 2009 05:14 am (UTC)
Thanks for believing in me.
January 27th, 2009 04:11 am (UTC)
Sorry to hear it was a rough visit. You're doing more good than you know. I had an experience volunteering in a men's prison so I can relate to the stress of what you're going through! Also have some juvie experience and know that those kids are just glad for someone to come and break up the boredom of their routine, for someone who cares enough to "bother" with them. It sounds like you're being very understanding of where these kids might be coming from. Good luck on your last day there!
January 27th, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for sharing. It's good to hear from someone who has done something similar. I appreciate the support.
January 27th, 2009 04:24 am (UTC)
If nothing else, you're helping them reconnect with feelings, some negative, some positive, but feelings nonetheless. They might resent that, but on some level, there may be some appreciation for it, too. You're coming at them from a place of honesty and authenticity which is profound and maybe baffling, but it will stick. On some level, it will stick. I really admire that you have tried to hard to make a difference.
January 27th, 2009 05:17 am (UTC)
That's a good way of thinking of it, that they are connecting with their feelings. Thanks for that. I am really trying to come up with a letter to send off with them on Wednesday...some final words that don't sound too sappy.
January 27th, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
I agree with everyone above, you've given them good things to carry with them. A thought came to mind as I read your post. They are pushing you away, you can't be theirs because the next class is your last one. They couldn't get close to you emotionally, yet they would have to in order to work for you. They started to get close, but then had to do a big push because they can't keep you. Just a thought.
January 27th, 2009 05:18 am (UTC)
Ooh, I like that thought....the pushing away because I am leaving. Whether or not it is true, it is a good one for me to hold on to. Thanks!
(no subject) - azang - January 27th, 2009 05:34 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - susanwrites - January 27th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - susanwrites - January 27th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
January 27th, 2009 05:58 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for posting this. I feel better already! Really.

They want you to love them, but also want to prove that you don't.

That feels like it exactly. And that's the sort of thing I am trying to put into a letter to them.

I am ready for it all to be over and yet I know I will be sorry when it ends.
January 27th, 2009 06:07 am (UTC)
I'm emailing you tomorrow {{}}.
January 27th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
I'll look forward to it.
January 27th, 2009 07:08 am (UTC)
Think positive
I've been where you have so many times. It seems like you've made some progress and you think you will go forward and get them to do their best. Then you have a day like this when you feel like nothing got through. I think the problem is that they have way too much baggage and you have no idea what kind of talk has been going on when you are not there. The guard might be talking to these kids too. His coming in and having to quiet the kids is his way of maintaining his control over them. He knows that you will be gone soon and then it won't matter.

Think on the positive side. Kids who are like this, with so many problems, don't have the self-respect to feel good about their work. They worry that if you put it out there people will ridicule it and then whatever shreds of good they feel about themselves will disintegrate. So they try to push you away and today was their way of saying that they know this is the next to the last day and they have to go back to their usual routine without this fun intrusion into their life. I think that the last class you will find that some will show more interest.

You are keeping their work, aren't you? You are publishing it so they can have it on the last day? It's been my experience that seeing their names and their work in a printed form will make them feel different. Can you scan the work of your good artists into this? I may be wrong, but it is a good idea to give them something and I thought you said you were going to do that.

But don't take this personally. I have worked in schools where kids had a lot of baggage and each day was a constant struggle to get them to see their own worth. They block out anything that adults say to them and live with the negative talk of their parents and friends. It's a hard wall to crack and 7 sessions with you might only put a tiny scratch in it. At least you might have gotten to a few of them and when I was teaching if I got to only one kid I was happy.:)

Feel better. Sorry about the long comment. Wish I could pat you on the head and say, "There, there. It will be better. You are tackling an amazing situation.
January 27th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
Re: Think positive
Susan, I wrote the last comment.

Barbara (from facebook)
January 27th, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Think positive
Thanks, Barbara. You've been very supportive all along and I appreciate it.
January 27th, 2009 11:39 am (UTC)
This was riveting. I'm amazed by your bravery in teaching the class, and in also writing very honest accounts of it. This reminds me, a bit, of the experience I've had helping to teach 13 yr-olds in a religious ed class. It sounds like about the same level of engagement, maturity and drama. And respect (or lack thereof, depending on the kid and the day) for the people who are giving up time to be there. I wonder if going to jail makes you act like a 13 yr-old, or if people with arrested development tend to be the ones who end up in jail.
Don't get me wrong--there are moments when I love my class. And I see so much potential in all of them. But I never thought it would be so friggin hard.
January 27th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Pam.

Yes, I am totally with you. Sometimes I love them and they are just a bunch of teenage boys goofing off and cutting up. Like the episode with the mirrors. And I also see a lot of potential in most of these.

But yes, so so so very hard!
January 27th, 2009 01:33 pm (UTC)
You're so honest here about your disappointments and frustrations. But I don't think they know how (yet) to talk straight about their disappointments and frustrations. You wish they'd put it on the page, but they haven't learned that release yet. They might. They might keep trying after the class is over. All they need is their hearts and minds and a pen and paper. I think a letter you leave with them is a good way to encourage them---remind them that it's NOT over if they say it isn't.

January 27th, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much, Sara. I know it has helped me being able to come here and vent about it all honestly. I really appreciate all the support I have been receiving from my friends as I attempt this.

I've been working on my letters to them all morning. I hope I can achieve the right tone of pride in their attempts and encouragement in continuing to try and to dream.
January 27th, 2009 02:14 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry this one was rough for you. You ARE making a difference, though, I just know it. You may never see the results of that difference, but getting them to think about emotions like love is going to settle in somewhere in their consciousness. Try to keep that in mind as you prepare for Wednesday. I'm sending you good thoughts!
January 27th, 2009 11:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I appreciate the good thoughts.
(Deleted comment)
January 28th, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
Re: Wah!
Thanks. The support is greatly appreciated!
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( 33 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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