Thursday, April 21, 2016

Last night, I taught writing to incarcerated youth.

Each time I walk away from giving a piece of my heart, from truly giving, from empathizing-- that very heart grows in its ability to give and love. Giving and loving are the pinnacle of human existence. The steps to this pinnacle are simple; they are upward steps requiring exertion; they can be scary steps.

Before I drove to the correctional facility, I was nervous, but I truly believe in the healing and discovery power of writing, and so I asked that I would be able to bless these lives in the short time I had with them.

While walking to the locked-down unit, I was overwhelmed with the feeling I was on sacred ground. We tend to think of the incarcerated as the least among us. For some adults, perpetrators of heinous and cruel crimes, this may be so, but for children, they are often the victims of their own family circumstances: absent or drug addicted parents; mentally ill parents; crumbling life environments over which they had no control. They may be afflicted with disadvantages from a lack of education, a learning handicap, or the lack of having been loved. Each of the children I worked with last night could have been in my regular classroom. I didn't know why they were there, why they were locked away each night in a cell.

I started the night by asking each student if she had a favorite book. One child didn't read; another hadn't heard of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.

I explained the premise of To Kill a Mockingbird, explained who the characters were, and more especially the role of Atticus. Atticus felt in order to really understand a person, you had to walk in his shoes. I had brought paper for the students to trace around their shoes. I challenged them to write within the shoe, what it feels like to walk in their shoes.

"Choose someone specifically," I asked each of them, "a person you want to understand what it's like to be in your shoes. When you're finished you may even want to give it to that person."

Heads bowed and minds focused. One girl let the words flow and in no time had filled her shoe.

A door had opened.

Our next step was to list in their newly-gifted journals (from a regular mentor), what I refer to as territories. Territories are the things that belong to us, the experiences from our perspective, the memories of our lives.

We chose one territory to explore. By exploring a single word or phrase, we mined what was important to that child. From the word "wrestling," we learned that one student found in this sport, the ability to handle other situations. It brought her strength she hadn't realized. She had made a discovery.

A second student discovered that her caretaker, her grandfather was a good man because he was willing to sacrifice. We concluded that to love and take care of someone often necessitated sacrifice.

The youngest detention center member may not have discovered, but she was able to share through writing how much she loved to think of and serve others. She may have needed this reminder desperately under the circumstances in which she now lived.

The reminder may have been for all of us sitting around tables, in a locked up room, on a beautiful spring night, with beautiful, hurting children--children who should have been out riding their bikes, hanging with friends, finishing a school project.