I write a question on the board.
“What is a poem?”
They tell me a poem is about expressing your feelings, about getting your emotions out on paper. They tell me a poem exists to communicate something.
I think: There is power in naming things. There is power in telling the truth. Words give permission. Crafting language is a form of freedom. Writing has the power to aerate this space.
Every week, I walk from the outside in. At the glass window, I show my badge to the person manning the gate. I wait for the buzzer to sound. I push the door open. The metal door closes behind me—a loud kachunk that still jars me even though I know to expect it. I walk across the carpet and the buzzer sounds again before I push open another door. This place has many doors, all of them secured. Walking inside, the white concrete wall to my left is painted with a mural of words that I read every time I enter: “We can try to escape our actions but we cannot escape the consequences of trying to escape our actions.” The second door clangs behind me: like metal crumpling in a car crash, like a door closing in a carceral facility, which is, of course, where I am. I’m here to teach writing classes with middle and high school students living in juvenile detention.
“What do you need to make a poem?” I ask them.
We collectively decide: something to write with and on—and our imagination. Tools we all have at our disposal.
For the past year, I have taught creative writing courses to students in juvenile detention through the Writing the Community program. I also volunteer teaching creative writing to minors at a state prison. I have always been interested in the criminal justice system and skeptical of the way we tuck people away, out of sight and mind, and the impact this has on our community as a whole. The kids and adults living inside prisons and detention centers are comprised of much more than the actions or allegations that placed them there. They are sons, daughters, friends, siblings, parents, thinkers, inventors, artists.
I grew up privileged in many ways. Even though I was an incredibly sensitive child prone to anxiety and depression, I had support: my physical and emotional needs were well-cared for by my parents, teachers, and community. Many of my students have experienced layers of abuse, trauma, and isolation. They have few or no support systems and come from legacies of poverty and hardship. One difference I see between my child self and many of my students is that from a very young age, I was encouraged to express myself. I was told my words mattered to adults who cared about me. And when my emotions threatened to submerge me, I was handed a pen and paper and told to write.
Most of the time when I arrive, my students are already seated and waiting. We look at poems together and break them down to talk about technique and style. We discuss line breaks and imagery and rhyme. We ask questions about the poet’s intention and try to decipher what these words mean to us. Then, I give them a prompt and they write.
Some students come alive when they put pencil to paper, writing furiously until they reach the end of their ideas. Some students don’t even want to try, critiques already solidified in their minds: “I can’t do it,” “I’m not good at writing.” Even the students who enjoy writing have a hard time focusing certain days. I just have a lot on my mind, Miss.
One of my favorite moments to witness is a student’s pride when they finish a poem that leaves them feeling satisfied, even proud. This contentment reveals itself in an obvious smile or in the slightest upturn at the corner of their mouth.
It is risky to write about youth who are often invisible in our communities. Because in attempting to offer a window into my experience with my students, I risk rendering them wrong. I will inevitably render them incomplete. You can’t possibly see the entirety of who they are since I am nowhere close to knowing this, our time together so brief.
Over the holidays, I went to see a movie at a local theater. In the parking lot, I saw, in my peripheral vision, that a teenage boy was looking at me quizzically. Then, he called out: “Miss, you were in juvie, weren’t you?” He had been in my fall class. I stopped to talk to him, asked how he was, told him I was so happy to see him on the outside. When I was waiting on concessions inside, he tapped me on the shoulder—he had brought yet another former student to see me. That student had been resistant to writing but created intricate illustrations. After the film was over, when I went outside, I saw two more students I hadn’t yet seen. They told me the four of them were staying in the same housing and rehabilitation program. We had just watched the movie Elf and they were giddy. My heart swelled to see them together, to see them enjoying themselves, like the kids they are.
When I came back to teach the following semester, I found three of those four students were back inside. It is one thing to read statistics about youth recidivism and it is quite another thing to watch teenagers you have grown to care about back in detention. When I was twenty-five, I worked at a large social service agency in San Francisco. This was my first experience seeing so many people suffering from poverty, mental illness, and addiction. Every time I saw someone who had graduated our rehabilitation program come back, my heart broke a little. “You have to treat it like it’s no big deal,” one program manager who had worked there close to twenty years told me. “You smile and tell them it’s good to see them, welcome back.”
I handed my students loose-leaf and pencils, and we wrote.
What I see in my young students’ work is the same thing I see in all writers’ work: a desire to be understood and to understand; a need to parse through experiences to find and make meaning; the pain of grief, loss, and desire; the need to love and be loved. I see skepticism and heart, imagery and blunt truth-telling. I see students using words to reckon with their past and present. I see them struggling to see outside of their current reality. I see them writing their way into different possible futures.
Sometimes, writing pours out of students. That was true for Cole. In one of our sessions, he wrote:
I’ve seen and witnessed too
many lives turned to waste
fragile dreams and goals
used to getting pushed away
it’s like I can’t describe why
some choose not to think before
they seem incapable of thinking
of their life another way
although some stuff can hurt us
and set us apart
that don’t mean dreams can’t be
reached and we can’t touch the stars
we’re all like rockets just seem
to be drifting afar
but our destination is the only
thing that describes who we are.
Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer and writing teacher living in Tucson, AZ. Originally from New Orleans, she has lived in Tucson for nearly a decade where she has taught writing at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. She developed curricula for and taught creative writing workshops with incarcerated students at juvenile and adult detention through the Inside/Out program and has also taught writing workshops at The University of Arizona Poetry Center and The Body Love Conference. Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona and previously served on the board of The University of Arizona Poetry Center and literary nonprofit Casa Libre en la Solana. She works as teacher, editor and creativity usher, helping writers discover and clarify their voices and stories. Lisa is dedicated to working for social justice with her community. Her writing has been published in defunct, drunken boat, Diagram, The Feminist Wire, Essay Daily, and Edible Baja Arizona among others. She is the founder, editor, and curator of literary blog The Dictionary Project and is currently writing a book on sound and silence.