Walking into Tate High school I thought, not for the first time, that an alternative like this might have suited me better during my teenage years. The young woman at the office counter who checked in the other Writing With Purpose volunteer, Rachel, and me had pink hair and more piercings than I could count at first glance. The principal greeted us with a sleepy bulldog puppy in tow, and I learned within minutes that Dessa, a spoken word and hip-hop artist who has played a huge part in inspiring my own writing and performance, is coming in a few weeks to meet and share her experiences with the very same students I would be working with. Amazing! And… how on Earth can I write a lesson plan to follow that up? What do I have to offer as a teacher?
Entering the classroom with some trepidation, I took my seat and eyed the kids as they in turn eyed us, ideas and observations fluttering my head, questions about how I could approach the lesson plans I would be writing in the coming weeks. I watched the students as we free wrote off of the prompt of a woven bowl that the teacher set on a table in the middle of the room, jotting down notes about who I saw– the girl with the superhero shirt and braids who later shared a rap she wrote about doing laundry., one who who shared her own amazing charcoal work with me after I mentioned I was an art major. A girl with fantastic taste in music, and another who held her desk up by the edges like a shield against the world. The boy to my right discussing job prospects with one of the more experienced volunteers, work that would involve something different than a nap between the end of school and the beginning of an overnight shift– which he did and still managed coming to class in the morning. I was struck by the maturity of the situation, the adult concerns many of these teenagers had to deal with, the weight that could be felt emanating from some, stealing their attention as they did their best to meet the demands of the academic system.
It is here that I came to a realization and stopped worrying about lesson plans. I thought of the girl who I’d seen continuing to furiously write after the free write time was up, ignoring the teacher to finish her thoughts.
There are a whole lot of essentials to life other than test taking, paper writing, and passing classes. There are a lot of things which aren’t being taught because the importance of them has been lost in the scramble of grades and requirements– but a lot of these students innately understand what is missing and I think I did, too, struggling through the anxiety of the demands around me and left without the energy to actually do the work. There is a whole lot of heartbreak in this world, a severe shortage of support, and those who do offer it are often stretched thin themselves. So what do you do when the world blows up in a way that isn’t quantifiable, testable, or even explicable? For me– I draw, I write. Others sing or dance. Whatever the method, it is absolutely essential to leading a meaningful, coping life to find a creative outlet to express both suffering and joy, one that can be exercised alone and then, possibly, shared with others to offer the message, “Yes, me too. I have felt that also.”
This is what I hope to do in my own work, and what I hope to offer the remarkable youths I’ll be spending the next couple of months with.