I thought it was time again to share some of the work I’m doing in the local juvenile hall (Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center). For the last nine years, I’ve volunteered with the magazine The Beat Within doing weekly writing workshops in the hall and editing the writing for publication. I also facilitate a 5-week poetry workshop once a year in an English class in the hall for the Oakland Public Library, leading up to the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate application deadline (February 5th this year!). With Green Windows, I’m now regularly facilitating a weekly writing workshop with youth in the hall who have graduated from high school. Traditionally, these youth do nothing while their peers are in class. Probation staff in the hall took it upon themselves to organize classes for them: Anger Management, Financial Literacy, Gardening, Sex Ed, Chorus, whatever a staff can offer. You can read more about this program in this blog post from last June.
These writing workshops, all of them, have gotten harder over time. I’m not sure why but I have two thoughts: 1) There seems to be more kids who have a really hard time maintaining focus. And the amount of time they can focus is less and less with more and more kids who seem to not ever focus at all. 2) The discipline in the hall has gotten more lenient, which in a big way is a good thing. But it means the kids can go through a whole program and/or a whole class talking to each other loudly, not working, without any consequence or reaction. I have no authority, so I try to convince, cajole, reward, adapt the work to the individual and sometimes guilt-trip by telling them why I am there.
I am there to get their own thoughts and imagination on paper. And I am disappointed when I don’t, because it's a loss for me and for the world that might read them. But just being there matters. Even the most recalcitrant writers ask me when I’m coming back. They thank me in the end for “helping me express myself.” They’ll chat with each other about their cases and gossip about their girlfriends through the whole workshop and then tell me that the workshop will help them be creative and control themselves in their future. All of this can happen and be true. I am always drawn back to the idea that just being there, regularly, even relentlessly, and determinedly demanding of them to be their true selves on paper counts. Who do they count on to show up? Who is asking them to be true to themselves?
I’d like to tell you about the young people I get to meet. Here, now, I’ll tell you about two very different people.
Kalani has focus and tries almost every time, almost every prompt I give him. He can write short, powerful pieces that make the reader understand a little better what it feels like to be an incarcerated young man facing an uncertain future. He also has a remarkable imagination, able to create both characters and settings that go well beyond his personal experiences. The themes in his fiction, though, are always about family bonds and trying to care for family amidst scarcity, violence and addiction. He has written about the challenges facing a boy simply coming home after school and about a man hunting in the wilderness to get food for his family. Strong bonds between brothers reoccur in his fiction. In all the years I’ve been doing writing workshops in the Alameda hall, I have met few young people with this versatility of talent or this willingness to do real, challenging work.
A judge (not a prosecutor, thanks to California Proposition 57), recently decided to put Kalani back in juvenile court, to not try him as an adult and send him to adult prison. This is a victory. I do not know why Kalani is locked-up, though I know it’s serious. I never ask. These young people are not their crimes. Kalani is intelligent, creative, thoughtful, and kind. He prioritizes his family and he tries new things to better himself and broaden his world. Why would I need to know more?
Nia is 18 and has been told for months that she’ll be sent to a group home soon. She wants to go home. Why any of that needs to happen when she’s a legal adult, I don’t know. Group homes lie about interviewing her when they haven’t. She is angry. I would be angry too. She is in a class full of young men who miss their girlfriends. She’s a young woman who is easily charming and easily charmed but clearly she draws bold lines around herself. Nia is quick and clever and wants books and poetry with language that doesn’t bore her. She is a clear and precise writer and writes quickly. Every day she’s not in the mood to write, and almost every day she does anyway. One day she said that she was too angry to write. I said, “Write out your anger, don’t hold back, don’t worry about being appropriate, you don’t have to show it to me or anyone.” She did and said she felt better afterwards. In her evaluation she wrote, “I learned that writing down my feelings really does help me cope with my time.”
Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions about this work, or if you'd like to volunteer with The Beat Within.
Below, you ‘ll find two pieces of writing from Kalani, one from Nia and a piece I wrote in one of these workshops last Fall.
- Peggy Simmons
I’m scared because I don’t know what to do
I’m scared because I only have 1 life not 2
I’m scared because they offered me more time than I lived
I’m scared because I have no control in life
I’m scared because I can’t trust no one
I’m scared because the ones you love will hurt you
I’m scared because no one looking out for lil’ bro
I’m scared because I’m not living at home
The room I was in was small
fit about 5 people at most
But the room had AC so it was never hot inside.
I remember this room because most of my teachers
wanted me in detention
instead of being in their class.
The room walls were all beige with desks all facing the wall.
So 2 days ago
I spent my 18th b-day
in a jail cell. Ever since I turned 13
I always dreamed
about my 18th B-Day
and how I would have
the sexiest dress on
with the baddest heels.
The longest red
hair and makeup
to die for.
My 18th b-day
was supposed to be
the happiest day
for me. Instead,
once I woke up
I had to
stand in a door
and wait for somebody
to pop my door.
I had to sweep,
down my cell.
I was being talked
rather than talked
I never imagined I would spend
the best day of
my life in a jail cell.
I Want Your Expressions
I want your words to come from your bellies
I want your words to come out colorful and complex
I want your words to shatter your shells
So we can really see you
We need to really see you
I want your words to hit us in the gut
I want your words to show us new lights
I want your words to shatter our blinders
So we can really see you
We want to really see you
We are stuck, each of us, between walls
Walls built between people, between neighborhoods
We can’t see each other
We pretend the world is the world within our walls
We live small. We live blind. We live selfish.
Tend our gardens and ignore the smoke on the other side.
I want your words, I want our words to explode
So we can see each other.
- Peggy Simmons, (Written in the last Fall 2017 workshop in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center SEEP workshop.)