Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tongues Curl and Give Birth To Words and Worlds

I cannot take credit for the title of my entry. It belongs to a young poet from Oakland, CA. When I heard it last night at the Youth Speaks Poetry Slam Semi-Finals, I decided it had to be repeated everywhere. I wish I would have brought a notebook and taken down the many phrases that touched my heart last night. The night was so blessed in so many ways. I really have to hand it to that organization. The work they do is so vital to the survival of young people. Giving them a mechanism to express themselves is key to any child/person so full of emotion, they have no idea what to do. Learning to do that, is like learning to breathe. So as I breathe out last nights emotions, know that I am one of the lucky ones. Knowing how to write, having this random piece of cyber space as my forum keeps me centered. Because letting go of these words is nothing short of reclaiming life.

I invited three of my old students to come with me to this Poetry Slam last night. I was well aware of how difficult the week had been for them. You see they were informed this week that three more people from the after-school program I used to direct were quitting. With these particular three, I knew what a devastating loss it would be and I wanted time with them. I'm not sure if I wanted that time to help them process it or if I wanted it to just be able to give them a piece of my heart and time so that the four of us could enjoy each other.

My idea was that we would have dinner together, like a family, go to this slam, Twin Peaks, and then I would take them home. They each brought a side dish with them and I provided main course and a couple of other odds and ends. When I picked the two boys up, there was this odd mix of happy and awkward. This was interesting, because in all the time I had known these two particular boys, even in the beginning, there was never any awkwardness. I let it ride out as we drove up to the city, chalking it up to hunger. Yet as the hour passed and we reached my apartment, their emotion became thicker, yet what they were telling me was more and more sickly sweet. Unable to allow my time with them to be false, I said to them "Listen, I know that this week sucked. If you want to tell me that it sucked, if you want to tell me that you are mad at us, if you want to sit here and be silent; all of that is okay with me. But please don't sit here and try to put up Disneyland for my benefit. I can feel the hurt in you right now and it's louder than what you are saying to me."

Then it came, the emotions, the ones that I became accostumed to receiving every day while I was there. One of the boys started explaining to me how frustrated he was with the verbal abuse he was experiencing at home. The more he spoke, the closer he came to his voice breaking, until tears streamed hot and fast down his face. The young woman nodding her head in agreement in emotions I could tell they hadn't expressed in some time. As I watched him release, I watched the other young man shut down. The fear of breaking radiated off of him palpably. Even his body turned slowly away from the dinner table. He put the hood up on his sweatshirt. Like a turtle, I could see him retreating into his shell. All of it spoke volumes. I told them how much I loved them, how much it hurt me to see them being this hurt. But I knew at that point, the way you know, that your words will do nothing to resonate in the situation. There was too much hurt for words to heal any single part of this. I got up. Put my hand on the shoulder of the first young man and then asked the second young man if I could hug him. This 16 year old boy got up from his chair and in that moment he wasn't a tough teenager anymore, he was a kid. A kid who desperately needed love. He hugged me with such warmth and need that it hurt my heart. I asked the other young man to stand up and join us and both of them stood there in my kitchen, holding me and each other, tears spilling down there cheeks but managing not to fully cry.

I think the first young man and the young woman were aware of how much more the second young man needed a conversation. Soon after they busied themselves cleaning the kitchen and the young woman eyed and the second young man, silently asking me to talk him through this.

In my living room we sat there and he finally spoke the words that made the pain so much more relevant to him and really all of them this particular week. "It's just, its the same way for me that it is for him. It's that way for all of us. But before it was like, my mom or whomever would yell and call me a piece of shit, but when I got to College Track, it was different. I didn't have a mom that told me she was proud of me or that told me she loved me and stuff. But I had ya'll. And now there is no one there. And I want the services and stuff, but the other stuff was more important. Even walking in there is sad and hard for me right now. I wanna support you guys and tell you to do what you gotta do to be happy, but when you guys leave, my family leaves. That stuff, leaves."

And there it was, everything I was trying to articulate about why staff retention is important and quality of service being quality of heart. Better then I could have ever said it, this young man hit the nail on the head.

I was a little floored by how much space and room this created at that point for them to all be open. They spoke to me about everything after that, as a group and as individuals expressing to me what was good and bad in life right now. One of them said to me "I'm just afraid that I'm sensitive. It's like everything hurts me or makes me mad and no one else is that way." God I would never be a teenager again. I think that is why I am so dedicated to them. It's just so hard. I told him, its not about being sensitive, its about having a full cup of emotions. When its already full and getting a barrage every day, one more thing ends up overfilling the cup, it matters... a lot. When you know how to empty the cup, the world is a different place. He looked at me like this concept was relevatory. And we made a commitment to each other to learn how to empty his cup better.

The rest of the night was laughing and joy. There was good conversation. Activist conversation. Proclamations of changing the world. Silly singing and jokes being cracked on each other. It was FABULOUS. God I miss the kids. It was so nice to enjoy them outside of it being my job. It was different and good in a way that words struggle to articulate. Ironic when the night was really about the power of words.

We need to find ways to help us all express. Its a matter of survival. There is too much else to do for us to let emotional constipation be a block in the progress of the world.

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