Challenging the Cool
by Eli Hastings
Walking into a 10th Grade public high school classroom with the plot to “teach creative writing” presents a myriad of challenges, some of which are specific to each class and many of which are inevitable across the board. My first day at Garfield, I was banking pretty heavily on my cred as an ex-Bulldog, but when I made the old-school “G” with my hands to demonstrate my legitimacy, several students rolled their eyes and at least one shielded her gaze, as one might at a drunk uncle’s antics during a nice dinner party.
I mention rolled eyes, “cred,” and authenticity because one of the steepest slopes to scale with this age group—15 and 16—is the exhausting imperative of coolness. Poetry, to say nothing of fiction or memoir, is not particularly considered cool. Emotional availability and heartfelt proclamations are not considered cool, as a rule, and are often not considered safe, for good reason. But they are elements that make for the most powerful writing.
It occurred to me early on in this residency, as a result, that earning the trust of my students would be (and still is) a prerequisite to removing the filters of bravado, cliché, and just plain silliness (which, of course, we make plenty of time for as well). I was facing three classrooms full of students who had no doubt weathered some storms in their personal lives and in the social reality in which they exist. Understandably, these trials—or “real s*$#”—as one of my students calls it, have by and large hardened these young people and made it less likely for them to open up.
In addition to my work for Seattle Arts & Lectures, I also work with a 15-year-old nonprofit called Pongo Teen Writing. We run poetry programs one day a week at both King County Juvenile Detention and at the Child Study and Treatment Center at Western State Hospital. It’s a phenomenon and deserves a lot more space than this blog post offers, but one of the most remarkable things about these projects is that almost every single teen—mostly those that fit in the same age range and often come from the same neighborhood as my Garfield students—sits down, opens up, and speaks real hard truths about his or her life. Part of this is Pongo’s painstakingly developed, one-on-one approach, part of it is the context of relative privacy (and lack of a crowd to perform to), and part of it is simply being given the permission to be real.
So I decided to bring in some sample Pongo poems and exercises.
THE GUY WITH THE GREEN EYES
By a 16-year-old Pongo author in Juvenile Detention
I want to write about the guy who raped and molested me. It
happened when I was ten.
It usually happened during the night
when my mom was drunk.
That’s how I knew it was coming –
he would give my mom drinks.
What I do remember is that it was always dark.
His green eyes lit up in the dark.
It was the squeaky soles of his shoes that always let me
know he was near.
He made me do things I didn’t want to do
by threatening the life of my little brother
with a shotgun.
I told my mom. She didn’t believe me,
“K. is a really good man. He’d never do the things that you say he
To this very day those words still bother me.
While this was happening –
I felt helpless, I felt angry,
I felt lost, I felt like it was all my fault.
“For being too pretty,”
That’s what my mom said,
“Walking around with those tight shorts and shirts.”
I finally got tired of it two years later.
I stood up for my little brother and I.
And when he made me French kiss him,
I bit him.
The taste of his blood was horrible.
I told him to get out of my room or I’d call the police.
He stared at me with those bright green eyes, he did.
And nodded showing that he understood.
He walked away.
That was the last time I’ve see those bright green eyes and that shotgun.
But I still have nightmares.
I can say that after reading a few pieces, the classroom was entirely silent for the first time that semester. We had a discussion about what I’d shared and in the course of it I tried to gently suggest that it was really courageous for these young writers to open up so fully—and I asked the class if they thought it made for powerful poetry. Most agreed that it did.
When I laid out a selection of Pongo exercises—always crafted from real poems written by teens—there was a crowding around the table where the papers sat in stacks. To be honest, I’d have to say that some students were simply attracted to the highly-structured, fill-in-the-blank nature of the exercises, but it’s also true that I got more truth—and more poetry—than I had up to that point. I’ve barely scratched the surface of earning trust, but that afternoon represented a good measure of momentum in that direction.
IF GOD WERE LOOKING AT MY LIFE
By a 10th Grader at Garfield
He’d wonder why—why is she always alone?
He’d understand that I’m too scared.
He’d know the way things had gone for me. They’ve gone really rough.
He’d remember how things went when I was very little, the things that happened for months, me not telling anyone for years.
He’d know that still affects me to open up to this day.
He’d know I’m trying to change certain things, like trusting guys more and not pushing everyone away.
He’d know how hard it is to change because I’m too shy to even talk to people
He’d want me to understand that life is too short to live in fear.
If God opened a new door, it would lead me to a life with friends and maybe even a lover.
Then I could start over.
(Pongo poetry and downloadable activities are available at www.pongoteenwriting.org )