by Eli Hastings, Franklin High School
With the unpredictable expanse of another residency laid out before you, it is reassuring to have a syllabus built that outlines, day by day, what you plan to bring to the youth. But if there exists a high school where things ever go according to plan, it would be disorienting and probably unsatisfying to work there. The chaos has a flow to it and you had better get flowing if you’re going to tap into the true energy of a classroom. Sometimes lesson plans spill over into two days. Sometimes you pull the plug on a lesson ten minutes in. Sometimes you pivot so it looks like you meant to talk about sensory detail when in fact you were aiming to talk about metaphor. And sometimes lesson plans bleed into one another as if they were meant to share blood.
I have worked for an organization called Pongo Teen Writing for many years, facilitating poetry writing with distressed and traumatized youth in jail. Every chance I get to teach, I bring in the Pongo model at least partially, at least one day. One of the blueprints (structures) that we use with distressed youth begins with the prompt, “I just thought you should know.” There is something intensely evocative in that stripped down opener that more often than not can put a goodly sized hole in a dam that a kiddo doesn’t even know she’s built inside. We frame it as a letter—to someone who is unreachable (for whatever reason) to you now. I share, as an example, a letter by a 13 year-old girl in Juvenile Detention to her mother, which reads, in part:
I just you should know how I’m feeling. I just hate you….I hate you because you left me one night when I was 7 and never came back. The police broke down the door to take me to foster care. But even before that you brought home men who hurt me and did bad things to me, I hate you for pimping me out. I hate you for packing my nose full of white powder, which is why I have breathing problems now. I hate you for getting me into drugs. I hate you because I ended up in a gang. I hate you…
I just thought you should know that no matter what you’ll always be my mom and I’ll always love you.
Many Franklin juniors wrote letters to their own mothers; many wrote to exes, or foster parents or bullies that used to haunt their worlds, or to moved-away best friends with deep nostalgia. Many letters seared me with the depth of love and many quaked with rage. So maybe it was serendipitous that the next lesson plan in line was about anger. I present two opposing kinds of anger: pet peeves vs. righteous indignation. We read some rants from the Stranger’s “I Anonymous” column; we list pet peeves (cocky bicyclists, racist shopkeepers, slow drivers, girls that wear Ugg boots with short-shorts, etc.). The kids have a blast with this and get to warm up by writing their own mini rant to the perpetrators of their pet peeve. Then we move into righteous indignation, for which I use the metaphor of a sleeping dragon, i.e., “what awakens your sleeping dragon?” I share my own sleeping dragon: violence against women and kids. I invite the students to share their own. More importantly I ask them to write about their own and to focus particularly on why it is that this particular issue stirs them so deeply.
The two lessons morphed, of course, to such an extent that one student jokingly titled one piece, “I just thought you should know about my sleeping dragon.” And at the end of the semester reading, I was unsurprised to find that many of the youth chose to read pieces that deftly and movingly wove the two lessons together.
A young woman wrote to her sister who had committed suicide in her presence:
I reminisce to the round of applause when I saw you walking down that runway, black pixie hair, big brown eyes, and lips that were carefully coated with cherry colored lipstick. I wanted to cut that rope that wrapped around your entire life…But I was five….I’m thankful to have known you for a little while because I get to tell this story. My story.
A young man wrote to himself and to the world around him:
I wrote this poem for me. I wrote this poem because I saw today as an opportunity to do something I haven’t done in quite some time. I wrote this to express myself….Now I know I don’t give a s#*@ what some judgmental idiot says about me behind my back…I wrote this poem for me…I wrote this poem to say I’m gay.
On the last day, halfway through the readings in our 6th period class, half the people in the room were weeping. Duos and trios of kids held on to one another like survivors with tears and brilliant grins, too, standing on their faces.