The One Strong Flower I Am

They are runaways, throwaways, “problem” teens; culls from meager schools and emissaries from questionable homes; bearers of “emotional disabilities” and lurid autobiographies for which they are medicated elaborately and counseled when possible; products of biology, family, community–of fate, impure and hardly simple.

They have landed here, in the group home school–where Sarah, their instructor, and Bob, her assistant, try to give them enough structure and knowledge to function in the working world beyond graduation. In the middle of this task, for two hours each week, I am to teach them to write poetry.

Poetry: a marginalized art form for marginalized people, I think, as I pull into the school parking lot on the day of our first session. I’ve taken this assignment because I am a poet and have lived into middle-age believing the golden assertions of poetry’s proponents: that poetry matters because it somehow enlarges the individual imagination, it articulates the life of the soul, it makes the world cohere. I have believed this because I love poetry, but now I suspect my love is rather effete. What place does poetry really hold in this culture, when advertising is the current school of eloquence, and the metaphor of the marketplace devours all other figures of thought? If poetic art is supposed to be so fine for the soul, I wonder, why don’t more people care about it, and practice it? Only the fierce grandchildren of the Beats–who dominate poetry slams and spoken word performances–and coteries of university professors seem interested in it. What would a group of hardening and hurt kids think of a poem? The implication in hiring someone like me is that poetry is, more or less, only self-expression, and self-expression is therapy–something the suffering and disenfranchised need.

I enter the front door of the school–a seedy starter house from the nineteen-forties in a scruffy working-class neighborhood. The organization that operates the school and several runaway shelters in the area subsists on government grant money; thus, the facilities are humble and the salaries slight enough to attract only the professionally transient or morally committed. Once inside, I see that many of the inner walls have been removed, and all those remaining have been painted a calming pale mauve. I’m introduced to a dozen students or so spread strategically across desks and tables, a map of emotional nation-states, I will learn later, alliances and betrayals.

Frankly, I’m scared, accustomed to the hierarchy of the college classroom where no matter how antagonistic or aliterate a student, the professor is still endowed with enough symbolic power to merit general compliance with the day’s agenda. But what do I do here if these kids merely sit before me, a Mt. Rushmore of indifference?

I keep the formalities short, and the explanations. This is no land for lecturers. Activity–the pen chasing the completion of the assignment across a page–is my hopeful lubricant. And I have assignments–exercises gleaned from the cottage industry of textbooks on teaching children to write poetry, from my colleagues and friends who have taught for years in the Poets in the Schools Program. All assure me that these teens will want to write about themselves, so we begin with a poem by Donald Hall, “Self-Portrait, as a Bear.” Though two of the students, boys, refuse to write, they do so out of a sedate shyness, preferring to sit quietly while the others work. In minutes, the rest of the class produces self-portraits as manatees, junkyards, great white hummingbirds. It seems simple, natural. Each wants to read his or her poem, and it thereafter becomes our custom to “read around” the room after each writing session. Often arguments and fights erupt over who will read next, though some of the students struggle to articulate their words when their turn arrives. One of them, Becky, becomes so overwrought by the wall between her ability to write words and read them that she throws herself down in her chair and shrieks. Seemingly oblivious to her torment, the room explodes into a flurry of waving hands.

After a while, the group senses it is break time, and they scatter into the backyard to shoot baskets while Bob monitors them. Hoping to gauge how I’m doing, I remark to Sarah that the kids seem talented and excited. She is a matter-of-fact woman in her fifties, who will prove wonderfully enthusiastic, but today she is tired. “These kids are worse off now,” she says, “than a couple of decades ago. They’ve got dysfunctional extended families. And it’s difficult for us to deal with such a mixed bag of students. Some of them are brilliant but emotionally troubled, some are just dull. Others are needing a lot of repair. Some are, I’m afraid, certifiably loony.”

The students return, careening and sweating from the court, and it takes a few minutes to settle them. Lee Ann, a glib powerhouse of sixteen is “cracking” on Jed, a short, doughy boy who is clearly an outcast of the group. All the ridicule is sexual, and Bob tells me later that my sway as the stranger in town helps him cut off the teasing sooner than usual. I then continue with another exercise, using Larry Wiowode’s poem, “A Deserted Barn,” which begins “I am a deserted barn.” They are to replace the barn with their own metaphor.

They write and then read–”I am a VW van,” “I am a brain in a jar”–and when it is time for me to go, I’m elated. Though two boys have shied from writing, the rest of us have begun, successfully. The group wasn’t so threatening, I tell myself. I want to thank them, but a number of the kids have already preoccupied themselves with other activities, peering into a workbook or a computer game. There is no ceremony of parting, as I’d like. I want copies of their poems, but I’m unsure about how to ask for them. I’m afraid of these kids still, afraid to pry and uncertain what proximity is allowable. I depart feeling as though I’ve given of myself honestly, yet I peer back at myself with some unease from the rear-view mirror.

The following week I arrive with poems by William Blake for Sid, whose writing from the previous session sounded a little like some of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, but Sid has been removed from the program, no explanation given. In his place, I find Charles, who has a history of glue-sniffing and marijuana use. He’s re-entered the program, arriving from his family home infested with so many lice that his head has been shaved. He looks a little like a detention camp internee but wears huge, cascading shirts and vast shorts the crotch of which arches just above his knees–a surrounding intentionally too large, I imagine, so he can never grow into it. Over the coming months, he retains a stupefied gentility, and though I ask him frequently to participate, he declines. Closer to graduation than the other students, he sometimes leans over workbooks he must complete to gain his high school equivalency certificate. Often, he stares absently into space. Sarah tells me that Charles “has come a long way” from being the feral thug who ranted and slugged any face he didn’t like. I wonder what he will do after graduation, what kind of clothes he will be able to wear in the world. There is hope, Sarah says, to get him into a trade right away. In the meantime, he becomes a spirit of absence that hovers over the room, the available non-contact.

On this day the talk turns to issues of racism. I’ve learned already that I must be willing to forgo any lesson plans and adopt some scheme that co-opts the mood of the room, so I decide that we shall read poems by Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton–which receive only mild interest. All present declare discrimination criminal. They know about being outcasts. And though everyone in this class is white, they know something about people of color since the group homes in which they live are run by two black couples with a loose religious affiliation. Still, the kids line up against each other on the slightest pretext–often based on adolescent sexual cliquism–and they think nothing of verbally stoning one of the group. Of the greater world of issues and movements, of ideas and possibilities and socially-approved ambitions, they are mostly ignorant, corralled by their age and circumstances into a self-involvement at once crucial and, it seems, stunting.

To shift the tone of the session, I have them write their version of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Sibyl, the fifteen-year-old daughter of recovering heroin addicts, drives into the page as she writes. Bob tells me that she has composed many poems on her own. She struggles with her studies and her moods, damaged by her parents’ self-abuse. She bragged one day when members of the class boasted about how young they were when they first smoked crack or dropped acid, “Hey, I was born an addict.” Still, unlike Charles, she generally exhibits a sturdy work ethic, probably because her father has been pushing her in that direction. He counsels recovering addicts and knows the value of discipline. So, today, Sibyl is eager to achieve and move on, diligent no matter how wavering her course. She writes:

Five Ways of Looking at the Left Hand

Plump, the shortest
of your kind.

Who are you?
Why do you point
so rudely?

Bad, Bad, Bad!
Keep yourself down
you are not wanted!
Don’t express yourself.

To be or not to be,
Will you or will you not,
that is the question.

Baby! Baby!
So you are the baby.
Oh, how you depend on your family,
the four of us!

During the read around, the group begins to unravel. Sarah sees it long before I do, and as soon as possible, she intervenes. She directs the class to a video on the life and poetry of William Carlos Williams. On the stand below the television, subject titles of cassettes outline the agenda of warning and reform–AIDS, Understanding Your Anger, STDs, Contraception, Gangs . . . . Sarah says she needs the television to draw the group together. The light of the screen, the action, focuses their attention as no other force can. “It tames them,” she says. Though its effect is temporary, they behave better under its watchful eye than under the policing gaze of the institutional point system, an economic paradigm in which instead of money, one earns points and, thus, privileges, for good behavior. As the video concludes, with long passages from Williams’ later work–quite beautiful but complex and abstract–I assume we will hear the kinds of remarks sometimes uttered by certain students at my university: “boring,” “kinda long.” But there is an amazed silence, some of it emanating from visual sedation but some from another source. “That was gorgeous,” says Jed, the group pariah, almost sighing, “really, awesome.”

As the weeks unfold and spring bursts forth with the purple blossoms of the jacarandas near the school, the sessions assume their individual shapes yet evolve into a single drama of manifold relations. Each time I approach the house, I look toward the front window to gauge the conditions inside, hoping for a wave or smile. I am met at the door with poems–assigned and written privately–by Jed, Sybil, Tommy and others, and I begin collecting them, though I’m hardly up to the students’ enthusiasm, the neediness that is flooding my way. Jed, for instance, begins each session with the question, “What shall I write?” and he lavishes whole hours by himself, working on the first subject I suggest. Bob says that Jed’s family scattered and his grandmother cares for him on the weekends, which amounts to her locking him in his room because she fears his rages. Jed tells me that he writes because he plays guitar and wants to start a band. On the computer’s auto design game, he fashions a racer for me. It brakes well but is endowed with so much speed, he can’t control it. He takes me aside to say he remembers a movie about Walt Whitman, Beautiful Dreamer, starring Rip Torn.

Clearly, he craves any kind of male attention, and I try to balance his attachment against the demands of the group and my own desire for emotional elbow room. One day, he notices the fountain pen in my pocket and asks if he can examine it. The pen was moderately expensive, a gift from my wife. I had been advised at my orientation to the program not to bring valuables into the school because they could be stolen easily. “These kids are survivors,” the case worker said, “they can be savvy about getting what they want.” This is the first day I have forgotten to leave the pen in my car. I hand it to Jed, and he uncaps it with his thick hand, touching the nib to the tip of his index finger. I cringe inwardly, fearing that he will somehow damage it, ashamed that I’m seeing him as some kind of ape holding a glass egg. But he writes his name slowly, delicately. “Boy, I’d sure like to have a pen like that,” he says, passing it back to me. He generates poem after poem, probing himself, and I encourage him, undeservedly proud, wondering where his words will lead him, and us.

When I take off,
I have a secret place to stay,
I have a big bush that totally surrounds me,
I made a bed out of straws,
I never was seen by anyone,
I always saw them,
I sometimes spent all day there,
It got lonely and sad,
I had no one to talk to,
Just like everyday of my life,
I can smell the leaves and straw,
I can feel myself get pricked by the straws,
I get bitten by spiders and ants,
This is how I feel everyday of my life,
When I wake up the next
Morning I feel in pain and sad;
I feel dirty as a bum,
Everytime I see a cop car,
I dive in the bushes,
I hate that feeling
of not being liked everyday of my life.

More and more, I try to avoid gestures that mark me “the teacher.” As often as the group can sustain it, we read from Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Etheridge Knight, Joy Harjo, and others. But I want to help open whatever gates are possible into the group’s most pressing experience and crucial perceptions, and I want to strip poetry of the institutional authority employed by countless bad teachers to unknowingly humiliate and alienate their classes. I think of the middle-aged woman in the post office at my university, who one day picked up a book of poems I received in the mail and, upon learning what it was, still opened it but asked, “Are these poems I can understand?” Whatever power poetry has, I think, must be for the students to grasp. It cannot be delivered by dictum or hearsay.

So I ask them to write narrative poems based on postcard images I bring in, and later they draw maps of their houses and neighborhoods, composing from the details they unearth there. The exercises migrate from the ostensibly impersonal to the intimate and back again, seeking to extend both territories. Sybil, Lee Ann and Teresa drift onto the subject of drinking. Teresa doesn’t finish her poem. Instead, she is eager to tell me that she got drunk first at thirteen, with her father, and did a striptease for him with two other girls that evening. She then tries to retract the statement as her initial pride fades. Lee Ann recommends Advil and orange juice for hangovers. She, too, struggles with finishing her exercises but not because words elude her. She pours forth increasingly monumental monologues, sometimes captivating the group, especially the females. She bounces into an admirable impression of Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann. She declaims television ad copy and reproduces the chatter of emcees, pitch men, news commentators–becoming a parodic oracle mouthing the detritus of public expression, the most expensive phrases engineered. Part of her, I think, wants to be television, to possess its power to command attention. The daughter of a single mother who is a stockbroker, she offers tips on mutual funds and smart buys, all tinged with a sweet, manic loathing. Inside her notebook, which features Einstein on its cover, she has written in hundreds of lines the words “shut up!”

During one of her performances, Tommy, who is usually unable to focus on any task for more than a few minutes, bends unwaveringly over the postcard he has selected and the dictionary he has taken down from the shelf. I leave him alone, not wanting to stem what will be his longest period of work in my presence, hoping he will produce more than his usual ten to twenty slim lines. His poems invariably begin with “I am a . . . ,” as if each of his poignant, dashed-off compositions were another attempt at initial self-definition, a first level of naming he can’t transcend.

While he labors, I think of the map he drew of his house, and his explanation of it.

“This is Dad’s room, I’m not allowed to go in there. This is Grandma’s room, I don’t want to go in there because she smells. This is the porch, where I go if I’m allowed out.”

Earlier, Sarah told me that Tommy’s dad is, in fact, his gay uncle who “rescued him from the West Coast.” Tommy’s map was little more than a sketch, a cluster of blank squares. I encouraged him to elaborate, but he froze before the prospect.

Eventually, Tommy presents me with the piece that has so preoccupied him. No poem this time, but a rough translation of the caption on the back of the postcard, a Russian postcard, which he has executed by replacing the Cyrillic letters with Arabic, aided by the dictionary. So smart, so truly beautiful, he possesses many of the qualities which our culture rewards richly, yet his meteoric application, his constant fidgeting, cast his future in doubt. Were he considerably duller and plainer but steadier and driven toward advancement, there would be more places for him.

Laughter turns us toward the room at large. Sybil, Lee Ann and Teresa–sometimes buddies, just as often mortal foes–have put their hair in pigtails, and are hamming it up. I capitalize on the moment, put all to work on poems about them. Lee Ann writes:

I like pigtails. They make me remember.
Remember what? Well, I never
wore pigtails as a child. I never
was a child. I was reading Forbes
magazine by the time I was 9.
A childhood is what I’ve always wanted.
So if I’m crazy like a kid, just
take it in stride. Accept it. I enjoy
acting like a 3-year-old. Pigtails
are not part of me. They are me, free,
flowing and sometimes hard to tame . . .

Sammy, a cute, wispy boy on whom Sybil has a crush this week, writes a rap about pigtails, which he belts out, and the room roars. At this moment, R.J. rumbles from the bathroom. Immense, stereotypically doltish, he can be violent, Sarah tells me, but I have only seen the gentle side, his pathetic confusion once when he sniffed his armpits not quite furtively after he had been teased by the girls about smelling bad. He calls me “sir,” and says about his compositions such things as, “this doesn’t suck too much, does it?” The map of his house and neighborhood is a lattice-work of thick, layered walls, perhaps as invisible to anyone else as the myriad emotional walls in this classroom. In two weeks, he will be removed from the program suddenly, his foster father collecting his articles, placing them in the car and then telling R.J., “You, you can walk home.” But now R.J. lumbers into the middle of the class, into the spotlight of attention, grinning triumphantly, his hair rubber-banded into three prongs. The group erupts gleefully, and soon all the boys with hair enough are wearing multiple pigtails.

A month later, I hear, in passing, from one of the administrators that a group performance has been scheduled. Perhaps it has been on the calendar since before my arrival, but the sidelong quality of the announcement makes me wonder why anyone thinks a public reading by these students is possible. The sessions in the previous weeks have grown more chaotic, reflecting a partial decline in the power of the point system to encourage compliance and an increasing strictness at the group homes, where chores have assumed a boot-camp magnitude. Lee Ann has tried to smuggle marijuana into the girls’ home, inside a teddy bear. She has run away with Sammy, and both have returned after ten days, Lee Ann slightly droopy from medication, Sammy still clinging to his repugnant “gangsta” persona. Becky, who still labors to read her writing aloud, is back also, having been committed to the local psychiatric unit for depression and suicidal inclinations.

Anger tinges the insistent calm of the mauve walls, and its colors stain the atmosphere suddenly, repeatedly–a kicked desk, a thrown book, an uprising of insults. The seduction of “acting out” gathers momentum, and Sarah divides the room, drawing boundaries like an imperial arbiter. One of the administrators tells her that all the talk of suicide is just a form of manipulation, though she should respond to it. The kids seem black-eyed with exhaustion and an unwilling resignation. “They’ve taken all my points,” says Teresa, “and how many more dishes can I wash?” I look on the board which displays the total points earned by each student. Level 7 is the top. Two students hover at Level 4, two at Level 2. The rest lie at Level 1.

More than before, I confront the emotional tone of the group and improvise, fashioning individual assignments on the spot with those willing to work. In this, I’m like that man on the old Ed Sullivan Show, who kept a dinner plate spinning on each of a long row of flexible poles, dashing up and down the row, swirling now this pole, now that one, hoping to keep the whole shebang spinning. And there are crashes. One day, I shout at the class to force its attention into some kind of consensus. At the break, Sarah asks me how I am, a little nervous about my having yelled. I tell her that I’m probably just tired. “Doesn’t it get to be a bit much?” I say, “Doesn’t it take more than it gives back?”

“I get money,” she says softly, flatly. And I think of the wife of one of my colleagues, who admired me for my work with troubled youth, until she learned that I was being paid, though modestly. Somehow, that fact shifted my labor into another realm and reduced its worth–probably because, in this culture, most artists are expected to adore their calling so much that they are grateful to tender it any time free of charge, while a few of their number generate vast wealth, and concomitant awe, by inventing mass entertainments.

Still, in each class session, small rewards offer themselves. Sammy smiles slightly when I compliment him on one of his lines. Each time I arrive, Jed greets me at the door and asks to borrow my pen, and I always give it to him, though it is not my beloved fountain pen, which I leave in my car. More than once, I witness a light in a face, a flicker of recognition and pleasure in being a maker, and my eyes water with the sentimentality of a childless man. Those who continue to write believe in words as action with an almost fundamentalist zeal. Like some of my more passionate students at the university–students often neglected and abused by busy, well-to-do parents–they sense how many forces have conspired to cut out their tongues, and they hunger, however remotely, for the power of intelligent articulation, the grace and intricate fury of words arranged like a feast to honor that which is humanly true. And this drive fosters a range of dangers, absurdities, triumphs. R.J., for instance, asks me how to write a love poem, because he is swooning with a crush on Sybil, encouraged by Lee Ann who knows that R.J.’s longing, if expressed, will result in his humiliation. Later, I find his attempts abandoned, mercifully, to the wastebasket. At the conclusion of a brawl between Tommy and Becky, which Bob breaks up, there is sudden, vast silence and Jed shouts, as if having an epiphany, “This calls for a poem!” and plunges into writing. At last, Becky breaks through:

Walking Boys

You see Tommy talking, being
by Sammy, following Sammy,
copying Sammy. Tommy, you
get on people’s nerves. You
try to show off at the computers,
in your school books. And how
you piss people off.

You see Jed talking, yelling,
shouting. Jed sits and tries
to get you in trouble. Some times
he acts out and does stuff and
blames it on other people.
Then he kisses butt. Jed,
you need to get a life.

You see Harry wearing cross
colors trying to be like this
kid that was kicked out. Harry,
before that kid came you were
nice, fun to be around. And
treated everyone . . . well, almost
everyone . . . with respect. Stop
trying to be like that kid. Just
be yourself.

For a while, I withhold from the students news of the performance, seeking to maximize its impact, since attention spans are often short and the attraction of newness ephemeral. I browse through my file of their poems, deciding which I will “suggest” that each read, uneasy at the notion of a show which is supposed to give them a “positive experience” while providing good publicity for the organization. During a class break, one of the administrators appears and discusses with Sarah the need to transfer Becky to a facility with more supervision, but neither she nor Sarah have reviewed Becky’s file because it has vanished in the labyrinth of social service offices. Acronyms pass between them, part of the language of agency-world, with its metaphysic of concrete goals, incremental achievement, measurable processes. Over and over, the students are, to me, amorphous, and this quality, for better or worse, collides with the hard surfaces of method. They are being dealt with, even if they do not, or cannot, fit their spirits to the system–which makes me wonder how much my file really differs from the one lost.

One day I arrive to find the blinds drawn on the classroom–a strategy, I later learn, imposed by an administrator to sedate the group by reducing outside stimulation. When I announce the performance, most of the class remains impassive, rumor of it having already visited them. Others seem stricken with delight, or terror. All are accustomed to reading aloud, but for many the prospect of their words striking the public air transforms the room from an everyday prison-house into an exceptional haven. For the first time, they recognize the security in their intimacy with their classmates, however painful. I pull up one of the blinds and point to the jacarandas across the street, which now rain their purple blossoms on a battered, gray Mazda parked at the curb. “That’s poetry,” I say, hoping to encourage them, “the blossoms and the heap.” Teresa rolls her eyes and a derisive giggle or two percolates from the group, and we are underway again.

The evening before the performance–which will be part of a volunteer recognition dinner–we hold a rehearsal-picnic at the boys’ group home. An old, well-kept dwelling spawned by a vision of large middle-class class families residing in ample rooms, its gables project over the live oaks in the backyard. The sight of the kids in these comfortable surroundings seems incongruous, almost inappropriate, but I remind myself that this is where they live, the males, at least. The students and the half dozen adults on hand sit quietly at the tables, or banter, or take a second burger off the grill, and the ordinariness of it all both shocks and reassures me. In recent months, the class has been tutored by a dancer also, so it has been decided that the group will read its poems–all on the theme of “my neighborhood”–while enacting a series of choreographed moves. In the driveway, the kids practice their routines, some slightly gymnastic. Paul, the choreographer, has arranged the work so that at various points each of the participants will drift into the foreground of the stage and read a poem. He believes the body contains its emotional history, and movement can retrieve and express it. He knows also the emotional demands required of one who must hold another, or trust others enough to be held, and he has created a piece that encourages the group to confront itself as never before. Thus, the kids will measure a frontier with the various weights and pressures of their words and their bodies.

They tumble, they squabble, practicing in small groups. Jed takes Sibyl’s hand, tentatively, to execute a turn; her touch is offered like a dark, velvet bag into which he reaches. Becky performs her slow flip aided by Tommy and Teresa, tossing herself backward, turning the world upside down again and again with greater confidence. Even one of the sideliners, Bill, decides he wants to be in the show, though he has written no poem, and Paul devises a place. I chew on the tip of my pen as everybody tries to meet their cues, mum so as not to further complicate the instructions. When we adjourn, at last, for Teresa’s birthday celebration, they have walked through the entire program once, a halting jag about which they seem generally elated. The administrator on hand, the woman who had ordered the blinds drawn, appears grateful for their solidarity and bewildered about how to transport it to the school. Teresa grins over her cake. “C’mon, hurry up. Cut it,” says the woman who oversees the girls’ group residence, “because you all got to get home and have community time.”

The next morning, at our usual session, I have the kids rehearse the program once more, but they seem to have forgotten most of their cues, even the order of their readings. Lee Ann leads the disintegration, reconfiguring it into her brand of improvisational nonsense. Jed fumes at what he perceives as limitless irresponsibility. Tommy decides that he will probably make a mistake during the performance and so must withdraw. Everyone seems to be locking themselves in the bathroom and kicking chairs. Yet that evening, they are all veiled in an immense propriety around their dinner tables abutting the stage. Always, they lust for attention, but the kind they will receive tonight–so different from the usual therapeutic regard, or the glare and thump of trouble–cows them. Also, their performance is already underway: each starring as his or her best behaved self. Again, their game faces remind me how much I project onto them my desire for them to be “normal,” conventional–generalizing to that end repeatedly from even their smallest gestures.

I introduce them to my wife Lisa, about whom the girls are especially inquisitive. A hundred or so guests arrive, and we eat dinner and hear a few speakers and many thanks, and then it is time. The room darkens. Into a wan spotlight on the stage, Teresa steps sheepishly, perfectly, and begins to recite, “If you walked down my street, you’d hear a cat crying for food . . . .” Most of the kids have not memorized their poems, so they will read them from a typescript. I’ve made several photocopies of each for the group, especially Tommy, whom Bob has convinced to stay with the program and who has kept trying to sabotage himself by misplacing his copies.

Other spotlights pool on the stage, and several small groups mill with a haunting slowness. Somehow they are transformed by the moment. They are clumsy, bored teens on a street corner of the heart, children fallen from a jungle gym composed of human bodies. Their faces tilt downward, lift wearily to the spotlight as though to receive admonishment from the gods of all that is older and more powerful.

I look out across the audience–an appreciative assembly of volunteers, who know these kids well–and yet I wonder what they hear in these poems. There is in such public presentations an unspoken demand for adequate–moving–content. We want these young people to write about their broken homes and wretched parents–their slings and arrows–poignantly, so that we can be moved by their trials and perhaps glean satisfaction at what help we’ve offered them. Any furious pride and rebellious dignity they might possess, any ferocity they might direct toward us is not allowed. Anger of this sort is rarely recognized as art. There are acceptable confrontations and others which are dismissed as bad manners, rant, or cant.

The program continues, unbelievably adding one small triumph to another. Becky reads for the first time without stumbling on her words. Delicately, with the restraint of one who has almost forsaken explaining, Sybil delivers her poem in which a love “potion” becomes a “poison.” Jed lumbers forth, thumbs in his front pockets, a wizened man in a boy’s body. The group shifts like a smoky constellation. It jumps and shouts. It leans and stands, a larger unity. And then–partly to show off, partly in genuine good will–Lee Ann, the last reader, offers an elegant impromptu thank-you speech on behalf of her classmates, and the show is over.

As the group bows to the generous applause, I wonder about the people beyond this audience–citizens in a culture where pain is quickly sentimentalized, where the suffering of one person is witnessed by millions through media that divorces witnessing from feeling. What would they hear in the words of these children? No doubt it is easy to forget how much these kids are responsible for the current state of their lives. In my months around the group school, I have seen parents frightened and confused by their children, as well as parents brutish and criminal. But in a time of reduced governmental commitment to social programs, where “personal responsibility” is becoming the newest device to relieve us of the reality that we live with others, shouldn’t we also ask: How responsible can a child be? If he can’t learn responsibility from his parents, if she can’t learn to care for herself from them, where will he or she learn if the doors beyond family are shut by a callous society?

Poetry won’t save these kids, if it is that kind of saving they need. Still, they recognize that it offers a form of salvation in a culture itself starving for poetry as it accepts weak substitutes and tries to destroy the poetic spirit. Various believers in their voices, these kids will need their belief in order to be heard, to make a better way, even by themselves. Of them all, I think most often of Tommy. During that vital performance, he didn’t sabotage himself, and, later, he had to admit to his success, an action he found exceptionally difficult. In the spotlight, among his classmates, he had read his poem with a sad, clear song in his throat, unhurried, his free hand hanging motionless, for once, at his side:

I am a rose
my stem is
strong I am
in a field
of daisies
I have
strong roots
I have to
fight for
water my
spirit is
strong I
have delicate
petals I
will always
be the one
strong flower
I am

–Excerpt from A Stranger’s Neighborhood.