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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.

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


( 42 comments — Leave comment )
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January 29th, 2009 03:00 am (UTC)
Wow. What an experience. I'm so proud of you. It sounds like you reached them better than one would expect in such a short amount of time. They'll remember you always.
January 29th, 2009 05:47 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kim. If you had told me on Monday that today would turn out like it did I would never, ever believe you. I think in the future I would do shorter and more sessions just to get a little more time in with them. But I'm so pleased.
January 29th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC)
You get an A+ from me for making me cry.
January 29th, 2009 05:54 am (UTC)
Thanks. It took me a while to type it all up because I kept getting all weepy-eyed myself.
January 29th, 2009 03:05 am (UTC)
*sniff* You made me cry. Happy tears. Proud tears.

Well done, Susan.
January 29th, 2009 05:56 am (UTC)
Thank you, Kelly. A hard-fought battle.
January 29th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)
I've loved reading these. Thank you for posting them!
January 29th, 2009 06:20 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
January 29th, 2009 03:08 am (UTC)
Okay, first, what a beautiful poem.

Second, congrats on the A, both for earning it and GIVING it to yourself!

This feels so good. I think for some of these boys, there must--during the process--always be a fear of failure, of not doing something right, of not being able to write, etc. You showed them how they all succeeded, Susan. Wonderful.
January 29th, 2009 06:33 am (UTC)
Thanks for all the support you gave me while I went through this. I was thrilled with their poem too.

And I hope I showed them that they did, indeed, succeed. I know I kept telling them there were no wrong answers, just a whole lot of questions.
January 29th, 2009 03:10 am (UTC)
Yay! I'm so glad you had such a great last day. I've so enjoyed reading about your experience. It's been incredible to see the effect that you and poetry were able to have.
January 29th, 2009 06:30 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading along with me. It was very empowering to me.
January 29th, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
That was a beautiful poem, and powerful. Your post was beautiful, too, and made me tear up. I'm glad you all had the experience together. And thank you for sharing it with us.
January 29th, 2009 06:37 am (UTC)
Thanks for being here with me on this crazy ride. It has helped me so much by being able to share it with my friends here.
January 29th, 2009 03:58 am (UTC)
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.

I had to stop reading for a minute after this bit because I teared up.

I'm so glad today worked out, and that you left on a high note and got to see at least a little of the effect you've had on them. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

And, btw: that's an A+, missy!
January 29th, 2009 06:32 am (UTC)
Thank you for reading along. I was glad to see a bit of the effect too. It sure helps me power up to think about doing it again.

And thanks for the grade. :)
January 29th, 2009 04:05 am (UTC)
That was very satisfying! Go You....and them too!
January 29th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
Thanks. It was very satisfying for me too.
January 29th, 2009 05:44 am (UTC)
You so rock! But of course, we all knew you would. They created a beautiful poem under your guidance. If you are ever having one of those days when you are doubting that you matter, just re-read this post. You brought a glimmer of light to each one of those boys. Brava!
January 29th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
Thanks. If I forget, you poke me and help me remember, okay?
January 29th, 2009 12:35 pm (UTC)
Wow. That was so lovely to read! I'm so happy that your last day there was a positive one.

You have touched all of these boys, you really have. It's amazing, and I truly admire you for your hard work.

Thank you for sharing the experience, too. It makes my heart lighter to read about it.
January 29th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading along with me (I know the posts were hecka long) and sharing my journey. I was really glad, too, that the day ended on a high.
January 29th, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm tearing up here, Susan! What an incredible experience for all involved.

And the poem. OMG, the poem!! I love it. Can you submit to your local paper?

I give you an A*, because you brought something very special and memorable (besides chips, LOL!) to these boys' lives.

Thanks so much for posting!
January 29th, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing in my joy at the experience. I don't know about submitting it anywhere but it will be on display with some of their individual work at a local musuem.
January 29th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
Okay, so you've started off my day at work with tears. They're good tears though. Your experience here is repeated daily across the country, and it's why I will never do anything by teach. Remember when I wrote that even though you felt like you weren't seeing it, that you WERE making a difference. Mission accomplished indeed.

Thank you so very much for sharing.
January 29th, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
Tricia you are so right. I can't thank you enough for the hand-holding and support you gave me on this project. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done but also one of the most gratifying. My hats off to teachers like you in the trenches day after day after day.
January 29th, 2009 01:33 pm (UTC)
Wow. What a way to start the day. That's an incredible story, and your writing is lovely. Thank you for giving me something so wonderful to read on a Thursday morning.

I linked here from Becky Levine's blog--so glad I did!

January 30th, 2009 02:58 am (UTC)
Amy, thanks for coming over to read my blog. I'm glad you enjoyed hearing about my journey.
January 29th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
Beautiful post. What an emotional roller coaster the whole experience was. You reached them, touched them, made a difference. Nothing can change that. You are very brave, and must be very proud. Loved the group poem.
January 30th, 2009 02:58 am (UTC)
Thanks, Jama. It really was an emotional roller coaster ride - whew! But so worth it. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I am very proud.
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( 42 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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