Truth and Poetry with Youth in Juvenile Detention

Melinda - Lake Stevens, Washington
Entered on January 8, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe. I believe when I push past my fears and do those things that scare me, those simple things like tell the truth, I am empowered. And only when I empowered, can I empower others.

Each week, I facilitate a poetry workshop at a juvenile detention facility. I one hour with a unit of girls and one hour with a unit of boys. During the workshop, hope to empower the youth with a writing voice while at the same time, remember my own teenage voice so that I may draw on that voice when writing stories for teens. During the two hours at the juvenile detention facility, I am put to the test. Can I be honest? Not honest as in here’s the overcharged change to a bill, but honest as in this is who I am.

The boys enter first and within seconds, they size me up. Thirty something. Well-dressed. White girl. Someone else to “help us.” Fix us. Someone else who doesn’t get us. No words are exchange because it’s jail, and the guards wait outside the classroom. Instead, the boys politely file in and take seats at the tables. I am another adult to tolerate for the next hour.

I start the session by asking the boys to write “I come from” poems. Most attempt to write something on the page. But there is one who challenges me. “You ask us to write poems about where we come from,” he says. “But do you know? Do you know what it’s like?” And then he eyes me and without blinking says, “Where do you come from anyway?”

As the young man and I face each other, I know this is the moment. The moment I must set aside the adult mindset that childhood is all in the past, and I must go to that place of being fourteen and scared to admit where I come from. I must go to the place that screams for me to keep silent for fear of what others might think, for fear of not looking perfect and most importantly I must stand and be honest without anger, self-pity, or blame. I must state calmly where I come from.

“I come from violence,” I say. The other boys look up at me. There is silence in the room.

“I come from stomach aches no one can diagnose.”

“I come from the slap of a belt across bare legs because of spilled popcorn on the carpet.”

“I come from reading young adult novels to find my story.”

“I come from knowing the truth but telling myself I don’t.”

“I come from alcoholism.”

The boy nods his head. “Yea, alright,” he says. “You know.”

And then the pencils scratch and the poems are written.

And I marvel at the power of the truth.