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Today was the second of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. We were missing two girls today so we were a small group of just seven.

When I got there they were just finishing PE and complaining about working out. Two of the girls chose to not get credit rather than do the actual work and I was afraid I would be dealing with the same thing in the class. There was no happy, "Hey Miss Susan!" or "What are we going to do today?" When I work with the boys, even from the first day, they are talking to me, asking questions. The boys are usually much less interested in poetry than they are in talking to me. The girls, while all of them may not be interested in poetry, they'd rather do that right now than connect to me. I understand. I'm new. One more person with power over them (they think) or the power to hurt them. It all takes time.

After doing these types of workshops for a while I've learned it usually takes 3-4 visits before I feel I've made a real connection. And I'm not naive enough to think I connect with each kid. There are always some I don't reach. I know I can't save the world. Not even this little corner of it. I can only plant seeds in what I hope is fertile ground.

We did another group poem to start the day. I let someone pick one of my word cards. (Someone always loves to "pick a card, any card.) And the word they picked was joy. Here's the group poem they did.


Joy smells like chocolate, apple pie, cookies, and pizza. It smells like baby lotion and fresh air after the rain.

Joy feels like butterflies in your stomach, that feeling you get on the roller coaster just before your stomach jumps. It makes you feel like smiling and your heart is racing. You feel like crying and giving hugs.

Joy tastes like Starbursts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, fresh-baked cookies for Santa. It tastes Thanksgiving dinner with all your loved ones.

Joy sounds like jingle-bells, oldies in a car downtown and applause from the audience after you just won your Grammy award. When you are climbing a mountain and you finally get to the top and you scream, that's joy.

Yellow is the color of joy. Joy looks like Santa and the Easter bunny. It looks monkeys jumping on the bed, no, it looks like someone dancing. Yeah, someone dancing for joy.

All but one of the girls offered up ideas for the poem which was pretty good. I shared a few poems that I liked and tried to get some discussion going but other than a couple of comments, the discussion fell flat. Part of that is they just don't feel comfortable with me yet and part of that (probably most of it) is that I'm not asking the right questions. I'll have to brainstorm more questions for the next set of poems I share. I think my insecurities really ramp up when I ask a question and there is silence. The four other adults in the room heard me but don't speak up. (In other classes the teacher, probation officer or aides have all spoken up. Not here.)

We moved on to what I was thinking of as another warm-up - "I remember poems." I had them brainstorm some things they remembered (recent past and more distant past) with no stipulations on happy or sad memories. I read them a few examples and then let them write. After ten minutes, everyone was done except for one girl. She was one of the ones not interested in poetry. A bit of a smart aleck. Last visit she was willing to miss getting her fine art credits if it meant she had to write poetry and share what she had written.

I went over to check on her. She said she was writing about a friend she made in elementary school. She paused and then said, "He died last year."

I asked her if writing it out was helping and she said yes.

We went around the room and everyone else shared their "I remember poems." They were good. Better than I think they thought they could be. A few of them surprised the teacher. (I love it when that happens.)

I looked over at the girl in the back of the room and asked her if she was done yet. She said no but promised she would finish it if I would just let her write. I nodded. At least she was writing. And she wasn't mouthing off to stir things up. She bent back over her paper.

I shared Maya Angelou's poem Life Doesn't Frighten Me. We talked about fears a little bit and I read some examples of variations of Life Doesn't Frighten Me that some other students had written. Then I turned them loose to write their own versions. When I checked in on the girl in the back of the room she was hunched even closer to her paper, her nose almost touching her desk. I leaned close and asked her if she was done and she shook her head no.

The rest of the class shared their new poems to much snapping and clapping. (Snapping is what they use instead of applause here and in many of the units but try as I might, I can't seem to get in the habit of snapping instead of clapping.)

I finished up by reading a few more pages of Hugging the Rock. I got a few responses to my questions but again, not much. I was getting ready to thank them for their participation in the day when a hand popped up in the back of the room.

"Done! I'm done."

The teacher was surprised but complimented the girl on finishing the assignment when she had a habit of blowing things off.

I asked her if she wanted to read it. She shook her head. I asked if she wanted me to read it for her and she said, in a voice barely above a whisper, "Please."

That girl, that sullen, I don't want to do anything and I'd rather have an F girl, she wrote THREE PAGES. Both sides.

As I read, she curled up into a ball on her chair, pulling her shirt up to cover her face, all but her eyes which stared at the desk.

I read about how she remembered her friend that she met when she was in the fourth grade.
I read about how she remembered him sticking up for her when things were tough, and how she remembered all the fun they had together.
I read about how she remembered when he was changing into a difficult teen and how she consoled him when he broke up with his girlfriend.
I read about how she remembered her own life turning upside down, about how her father kicked her in the stomach and how CPS took her away.
I read about how she remembered lashing out, running away, spiraling downward.
I read about how she remembered this friend, this special best friend, shaking her, telling her to get her crap together because she was better than this.
I read about how she remembered being sent from home to home to home until she landed where she is today.

And then I read. . .  I read about how she remembered getting a phone call from her cousin last year and how she remembered finding out that this friend, this special best friend that she always knew she could count on, was dead.

When I finished reading there was silence in the room. The author of this powerful piece was still hunched over her desk, tears streaming down her cheeks. I put my hand on her shoulder and she was shaking. I wanted to pull this young woman into my arms and hold her and let her cry as much as she wanted but of course, I couldn't do that.

I thanked her for the beautiful writing, thanked her for sharing her precious memory with us.

The room exploded in applause.

This is why I write poetry. This is why I teach poetry.

When we let it, poetry heals.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 33 comments — Leave comment )
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Sara Lewis Holmes
July 8th, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
Ah. So powerful. I hope she writes and writes and writes until she is no longer crying but joyful.
July 8th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
I hope she keeps it up too, Sara. I'm glad it was Friday today so she has the weekend to pull herself back together before she sees me again on Monday.
July 8th, 2011 11:00 pm (UTC)
I'm crying, Susan. For that girl's pain and the friend she lost and the courage it took for her to reveal all that and for your generous spirit you share with these kids.

You're all warriors.
July 8th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Tracy. It took me hours to get the post written because I kept remembering and crying all over again.
(no subject) - tracyworld - July 8th, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - susanwrites - July 9th, 2011 04:14 am (UTC) - Expand
July 8th, 2011 11:06 pm (UTC)
Salvation of the Word
The great tradition of Wordsworth and Lowell, achieving salvation through poetry of the self, painting a portrait of the lost self finding private heaven.
July 10th, 2011 04:33 am (UTC)
Re: Salvation of the Word
Thank you.
July 9th, 2011 12:16 am (UTC)
I'm moved by your blog post and by all the work you do with the teens. I especially enjoyed reading "Joy" and the poem the young lady wrote. It's amazing how poetry and writing can open us up to compassion, and you're allowing them to better express themselves in your class. Perhaps the memory of encounters like this can help bolster your courage in the difficult, silent moments. I'd like to reach out and hug each one. Thank you for the work you're doing.
July 10th, 2011 06:12 am (UTC)
Thank you for the support. I so want these kids to understand that poetry and writing can open so many doors for them.

It's so hard not to hug them all.
July 9th, 2011 01:38 am (UTC)
Wow. Go her! Go you!
July 10th, 2011 06:09 am (UTC)
Thanks a lot.
July 9th, 2011 11:59 am (UTC)
Wow. What an affirmation of poetry for everyone. So glad you are there.
July 10th, 2011 05:57 am (UTC)
Thank you.
July 9th, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)
ellie wrote
Hello Susan,

First, I applaud (snap at?) your bravery for working with these girls.

Second, I enjoyed the surprising and vivid images from their poems about Worry and Joy.

And third, I cannot imagine how emotionally difficult this moment must have been when you helped this young girl write out her pain. And here you were able to put it in words in such a straight forward, yet incredibly moving way.

Thank you,
July 10th, 2011 06:06 am (UTC)
Re: ellie wrote
Thank you so much, ellie. It was such an emotional experience. She did all the work. I just opened a door.
July 9th, 2011 01:33 pm (UTC)
This made me tear up while I was reading it.

Good for you, Susan. You rock.
July 10th, 2011 06:06 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kate.
July 9th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
Yes, you ROCK!
In the 50's and 60's in NYC in Washington Square Park, people snapped instead of applauding to keep from having the police called by the neighbors...
What you are doing is so helpful. I am proud to call you friend.
July 10th, 2011 06:07 am (UTC)
Oh Patty, thank you. I am proud to call you friend too.
July 10th, 2011 01:14 am (UTC)
I am so thankful that there are people like you, who are willing to do the hard, hard work of bring poetry to kids who need it so, so much. Thank you!
July 10th, 2011 06:06 am (UTC)
Thank you very much.
July 10th, 2011 01:49 am (UTC)
Such a powerful piece of writing. It got me thinking for such a long time. I really feel for this girl. It was probably the first time ever since the death of her friend that she allowed herself to think so deeply about them. It has probably helped her greatly and maybe now she can start healing. Well in that part of her life anyway.

I lost a friend when I was 8 years old and he too was only 8 as well. Life does not seem quite fair sometimes. He was so special to me that even at 8 years old I thought he was the one I was going to marry. The thing is no one ever told me what really happened to him. All I know is that one day he was there and the next day he wasn't. Life was like that for me as sadly a lot of children I first went to school with did not make it.

It is true that in life we do indeed make our own choices. Some right some not so right but I believe for the most part we are sadly victims of circumstance. It is how we choose to deal with these that make us who we are. With the right guidance and support we have more of a fighting chance.

All these kids need is really someone to believe in them. Yes and sometimes simply just someone to tell them that they are indeed worth it. So taking the time with them will be helping them more than you will ever know. A bit like planting seeds that may or may not grow. some do and some sadly don't. The ones that do though grow to become sometimes beautiful flowers and it is these ones that you tend to focus on.

You can't reach everyone and you can't help everyone because sadly they will not let you. If you can even reach one or help one person you will have achieved a great deal so don't give up as I know you won't as I have followed your other incarcerated teen efforts and you have achieved great things already.

Yes keep encouraging them to write as much as possible because as you said for me it has helped me greatly and you are exactly right. That is why I am continuing to write down my thoughts and my feelings. Even if no one ever reads them they still help me to become what I think in the end will be a better person.

Well at least that is the aim for me. Hopefully it it also a goal for a few other people by the end of your sessions. I have true faith in you.

Anne McKenna
July 10th, 2011 06:09 am (UTC)
Thank you, Anne. I know you are learning yourself how much writing things down can help things heal. I'm so glad you are taking that time for yourself.
July 10th, 2011 09:37 am (UTC)
Susan this is so amazing thank you for sharing. Thank you for being this amazing person that walks into that room of teenagers and talks to them in ways they understand...Janet
July 10th, 2011 05:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I really don't know how it happens. I don't talk a lot. I invite them to write a lot. And I listen. Sometimes I think that's all it takes, a willingness to listen to them.
July 10th, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)
Wow. Just wow.
July 12th, 2011 05:38 am (UTC)
July 11th, 2011 12:24 pm (UTC)
Susan, this made me cry. All honor to her for finding the words, and to you for opening the door.
July 12th, 2011 05:39 am (UTC)
I cried too, Amy. I was so proud of her.
July 11th, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
I cried as I read this, and I guessed that you were probably crying as you wrote your post.

You did something amazing and I bet that this will be a lasting memory for the girls in the group.

Thank you
July 12th, 2011 05:40 am (UTC)
Yep. I cried all the way home from the facility. I hope it created a memory for them to carry forward.
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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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