By Joseph Ross
Continuing our series on hope, my friend and poet Alan King recounts experiences conducting a poetry workshop for troubled teens near Washington, D.C. Alan is a fine poet, as is Truth Thomas who conducts these workshops with him. Alan blogs at http://alanwking.wordpress.com and he is a terrific part of the D.C. poetry community. ~Joseph Ross
Putting It On The Line
by Alan King
I’m challenged whenever I walk into the classroom.
Especially every Tuesday that Truth Thomas and I conduct an hour-long workshop for the Legacy Poetry Project at the Homewood Center in Ellicott City. The project, held on a bi-weekly basis during the school year, is sponsored by the Horizon Foundation.
The school, which opened in 2002 and currently serves more than 100 of the 49,542 students enrolled in the Howard County School District, is not the typical middle and high school.
Unlike its traditional counterparts, Homewood operates through three programs designed to meet the individual needs of students who struggle with learning in a regular classroom because of chronic academic and behavioral difficulties.
Among those programs is Passages, which provides transition opportunities and support for students heading back into the public school system from facilities such as juvenile detention centers. The other two programs are Bridges and Gateway.
Bridges is a special education program for students with emotional disabilities.
The issues of those in Gateway are behavioral. In addition to counseling, those students require social skills instruction and a positive behavior management system.
“The Legacy Poetry Project” is part of the therapeutic services offered to students at Homewood. With a goal of teaching at-risk students the power of positive self-expression through poetry, the project exposes them to much more. During a workshop session, students read poetry, participate in discussions, or work on writing prompts.
Field trips are also part of the program to help enhance the students’ experience with art and nature.
“These trips have exposed our young poets to the beauty of art and have enriched the poetry that our young poets create,” according to a quote on the Horizon Foundation’s website from Homewood’s Media Specialist Anne Reis.
Homewood’s Principal Tina Maddox agreed with Reis.
Of the poetry workshop, Maddox was also quoted on the foundation’s website: “It is a constructive and creative way for our students to share the multitude of trauma they have experienced in their lives.”
On paper, these teens might seem like a handful. But in the classroom, they’re inspiring.
Like one young girl, who pinballs between poetry and fiction, and does both of them well. Then there are the two emcees aspiring for more than just the rap game. (One emcee recently made honor roll and is currently seeking college scholarships).
At the completion of the program, students will submit their poems produced in the workshop as entries for various contests and participate in the Homewood Poetry Reading featuring their own work.
Truth also told me that the school plans to publish a collection of student poems in pamphlet form.
At a recent session on elocution, I watched a soft-spoken young girl overcome her fear of sharing her work aloud. When asked about her goals after high school, she said she wants to be a writer.
And that’s when it hit me. “Learning is the discovery that something is possible,” according to the late-German Psychoanalyst, Fritz Perls.
Learning is also a two-way street. That’s where the challenge comes in.
Through their poems, some of our students wrestle with issues of abuse and drug addiction. They put everything on the line when they write—what I struggle with doing in my own work.
Every time I approach the page, I’m like the soft-spoken young poet, who used to tremble from stage fright. The internal voices heckle me from somewhere in the dark, yelling: “How much you’re going to reveal, Alan?!”
When this happens, I close my eyes and go back to a moment in the workshop when I watched a young woman write a poem to process her father’s death.
She also wrote about alcohol and her self-destructive path that was halted by a teacher’s concern and the encouraging words of staff members.
Then I open my eyes and know what I have to do. Put it on the line has become my new mantra. I open my eyes and the words of William Arthur Ward, the American scholar and pastor, echo through the halls of my mind whenever I come back to the page from a meditative trip.
Those words give some context to why Truth and I do what we do and what we end up with as a result. “When we seek to discover the best in others,” the scholar said, “We somehow bring out the best in ourselves.”
I can’t speak for Truth, but I can speak the truth regardless. For me, Ward’s words ring true every Tuesday morning.