This is a true story. It is a story about a dream come true, working with young people, expectations and perfectionism. Leaving room for magic.
As the after school writing instructor at Face to Face Academy, I have learned to not take anything for granted. These students are here at this small charter school because they want to graduate but have fallen behind for a variety of reasons. Some have had bad luck or made bad choices. Some are parents, some are homeless, some have mental illness or addiction problems, some come from families where English is not the first language at home. Some live in neighborhoods where police sirens split the night. Some have to work.
The students who take the writing workshop are hard-working and mature. Those who aren’t serious about doing the work usually try it for a session, then don’t show up again. Occasionally a pregnant young woman can’t concentrate or goes into labor before the class is completed. Occasionally students return semester after semester to give it yet another try but drop out after two sessions when they realize what is expected.
Although it is an after school program and there is no grading, I assign homework (it can be done during the school day and I make it easier each time I give it yet another try) because that is part of the requirements to keep their charter school status and to attempt to weave a thread of additional reading into their lives. When I ask them what they are reading, they shrug and say nothing. Texting has replaced it.
I also am very strict about showing up on time, reading aloud what we write, and turning in a typed piece on time.
I use published poems as prompts and inspiration and practice in reading. We go around the table taking turns reading through the poem. We discuss vocabulary they may not know and concepts of structure, metaphor and imagery, using our senses and paying attention to the world around us. Their comprehension skills are low and their attentions spans short. But mostly we write from our personal experience. What you love and what makes you mad, describe your home and neighborhood, did anything ever happen that you felt was wrong, what did you do or not do about it, if you were the president what would you do? What if you were a journalist or a movie star or a poet or a dream?
I was given an outstanding opportunity by Saint Paul Almanac, a community-based datebook filled with poems, stories and photos about Saint Paul. Called a literary campfire, I have been published in it and got to meet all of the Twin Cities poets I had only heard about, participating in readings scheduled through-out the fall in various Saint Paul cafes. Each month on Monday night, a reading takes place at the Black Dog Cafe and I was invited to curate one. I instantly thought of how cool it would be to have my students read, to create a presentation of their work and some of the poems we had studied in class. Best of all, they would get paid for appearing by a grant, one of the few ways I know to get young people to show up. A reward.
We wrote material that took my breath away in its honesty and wisdom, but they did not want to read those highly personal pieces. That was fine, I let them choose. I asked the English teacher Jennifer if she wanted to share a piece. I was excited about the way our voices would weave together. We started with 10 students. Two dropped out, one had her baby, one graduated and moved, and one couldn't get reliable child care. In the end, we were six females (including the teacher and myself) and one male, so Mikey would read Robert Frost’s poems and we women would read Joy Harjo’s poem I Release You, a very powerful poem about racism and letting go of fear.
We finished the workshop and I came back to the school to rehearse, answering question after question about the reading. I have it all on paper, I assured them. Your poems are in order in a notebook and I have printed out a program to follow.
Then we had Christmas break.
We had agreed to meet at the Black Dog the week before the performance to get familiar with the space and practice getting on and off the stage. Mikey and Mai had graduated the previous month so it wasn’t too surprising that Jennifer had trouble getting them to commit. But when they told her over the phone that they would try to make it for the reading and hadn’t shown up for rehearsal, I started to panic. We had three poems where all of our voices were interwoven and they each had a poem to read with one other person. Plus presenting their own original work. Jennifer shrugged and said, “How about if I invite another student to read Mikey’s part and I will read Mai’s?” She then explained that when Terence heard about the event, he had yearningly said to her, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a guest poet?” “Ok,” I agreed. “Can he do the group poems?” “I will rehearse with him,” she assured me. Not part of the burden I wanted to lay on her shoulders but she is dedicated to her students’ success.
The day of the performance coincided with a full moon and perhaps that explains what happened next. I couldn’t get internet on my computer so cell calls flew back and forth. The editor of Saint Paul Almanac, Kimberly Nightingale, didn’t know how many checks to prepare or how to prepare mine, as I had told her I wanted to share my payment to make sure each student got at least $50. Angela was too sick to come to school but was determined to make it to the reading. Tyler suddenly had an emergency visit to the hospital. Mikey was not answering his phone. Tonight was the first day of a college class that Chaunesty had signed up for; she had been emailing the professor but received no reply so she was on her way to the college to find out if she could be excused. I began to wonder if the show would happen at all. There was nothing to do but surrender. Surely it would all work out, even if I had to do the entire show by myself.
But at 6:45, all the students except for Mikey had arrived. I put them to work distributing programs on the tables and arranging chairs while the sound man set up two mics. When he asked us to stand up, I suddenly realized that we were quite a range of heights, something I had not considered. The arriving audience seemed to be mostly students and school staff, the students promised extra credit in English. Out of the 200 friends from my email list and fb that I had invited, 3 showed up. The artist who was to do an impromptu drawing of us while on stage had not appeared, but the signer for the deaf who had not been available for the past three readings and was not expected, arrived ready to sign.
At 7:10, I was on stage. Mondays at the Black Dog had traditionally been slow but in order to draw in a crowd, Mondays had become game night. Besides the hiss of cappuccino machines, patrons on the other side of the café were loud and noisy. Kimberly made motions in the back to turn up the mics while I leaned forward to give my introduction.
Static screeched between the mics, some students read softly, I couldn’t tell if anyone in the audience could hear, but we soldiered bravely on. “The moon is full,” I announced at one point, “and we are in 2012. I am sorry for any difficulty in hearing us. We are doing our best to work with it.” Halfway through, the light from the video production went out and the poem I release you was recited without the use of the mics at all, turned off when screeches filled the air.
But the show was a success. The audience loved it. Jennifer’s poem about being a teacher helped us to understand the world of these youth: did they have enough to eat, had they been awake at night with a cranky baby, exhausted from an after school job, what about their test scores and how can you infuse them with the love and joy of language when their current situations were tenuous and perhaps filled with violence and grief. The students spoke of what was on their minds, their desire to be heard. Their invented persona poems of teen pregnancy or being locked up may have been embellished by their imaginations, but they were based on people they knew. Their poems of love and sadness rang true. They were genuine and they were amazing.
You never know what to expect when you are working with young people. It keeps me on my toes, one of the reasons I love it. I feel proud when they are successful; it makes me want to try harder when my expectation are too high and they can’t reach them. But best of all, students in the audience who had been ambiguous about attending the workshop left saying how inspired they were to take the next one. What will our next project be? I wonder. How can I get their voices out into the world?
To find out more about Saint Paul Almanac and our event: www.saintpaulalmanac.com
To find out about the 2009 McKnight grant project that was the beginning of my relationship with Face to Face Academy http://www.wendybrownbaez.com/In-the-Shelter-of-Words.html