A couple of months ago, a friend gave me a 40-page book of "prose poems" by a friend of a friend. The book is called badgirls.From the intro:
"I started teaching Language Arts at a school within a Level V lockdown treatment center for teenage girls eight years ago...
I took the job and haven't left. Friends ask why I want to publish these poems, to share something so ugly? I say they're documentary, memoir, love notes and celebrations. They're for you to hear. They're for you to see."
Here's one of them:
I walked into dorm on Sunday. Saw Sasha on the floor. She was poured on the floor in the hallway entangled in yarn. The rug on the floor was so dirty, it smothered the concept of color. Sasha's face was so broken, it shattered the concept of face. Disheveled and stringy on the floor, she was entangled in yarn. She was holding a snarl of yarn like a baby. The snarl, the yarn, and Sasha were beige. All beige. Bad beige. The beige of old-fashioned metal files. Band-Aids. Lethargy. The yarn was donation yarn. Yarn stacked in the back of the craft store year-end. Yarn nobody wanted to buy. The neutrals, neons, and rusts. The Easter pastels. These hairy, butt-ugly salamis.
I was wondering whether Sasha was trying to unsnarl the yarn or just enjoying the wonder of the snarl. Sasha ferociously picked at her face. Her temples were bleeding. Sasha asked me for the leftover snack. Everyday she asked me. I told her she could have it if she turned in her homework for the rest of her life. Then I gave her the leftover fruit leather, giggling. The next day she turned in her paragraphs. I gave her the leftover Grade B bananas and apples so tiny, they looked like lime golf balls. The next day Sasha's friend left. They'd been best friends for a year. They'd been only friends. Maybe only friends ever.
Sasha came to school crying. Hard. Her pale face was puddled with murky devastation. She walked right into the time-out room. And cried. She cried all morning. Harder and harder. She curled into a fetal ball. After lunch Sasha punched a hole in the hall wall. Then she jumped up and ripped off the light fixture with a horrible crackle. She grabbed the water jug and dropped it on the floor. It weighed as much as God. The jolt of that thud changed our worlds. Girls ran out of the classroom trying loudly to remember how to breathe.
Sasha lost all her privileges after that. She walked back into the timeout room the next morning. She put a blanket over her head. She stayed that way for a week. Like a pale blue dune. When Sasha finally came up for air, her face was clear and glowing.
And here's a note from Leanne:
My first job working with underserved, at-risk populations was way back in the late 70s. It was a government-funded magazine project and it was my job to train street kids in the skills of magazine production. This was after my first real job after college as copy editor for Billie Jean King's magazine WOMENSPORTS. Frankly, I found the kids to be more inspiring and true to themselves.
After that job, I remained involved with that population--as an itinerant writer/teacher, I worked all over the state of Oregon teaching mostly poetry and spokenword. I always preferred the underserved/at-risk students as they were more willing to take risks and seemed to be more in touch with their feelings. In the 90s, I went into the juvenile prison system for the first time, working with teenage boys incarcerated for violent crimes. I expected monsters and they were darlings. Yes, their lives had been hideous and their hearts had been scraped, but their resiliency was awe-inspiring. They still had hope, big-time!
My husband I ran a poetry cafe (Cafe Lena) throughout the 90s, but I decided to rejuvenate my dead teaching credential in the mid-90s because I couldn't stand the restaurant business. I went in as a substitute teacher at the lockup facility that was the setting for BADGIRLS back in 2004. I fell in love on the spot and asked what I needed to do to stay there as a regular language arts teacher (it was a public school, although a lockdown treatment center). I had to get a special education endorsement and a Master's in Education...so I did that and completed it all 5 years ago.
Now I am moving on to a new situation and will be placed in another school that works with messed up children, probably younger ones. I am awaiting my assignment. I went through 2 months of investigation because of the BADGIRLS book and the play based on the book that incorporated my writing and reflections with student work I had collected. I had two actors playing two students and we basically recreated my classroom. I even taught the proper use of the apostrophe during the performances.
We will be traveling the show to Nebraska next winter as a friend of mine from childhood teaches at a college there and has received a grant to bring us. I'm hesitant to promote the show too much around here as I'm still being investigated by the state board, although they are so backed up, I hear, that it may be a year or two before they even get to me. I took notes throughout the 8 years I taught at the school. The stories of my students shocked me. These kids had lived through the absolutely worst. THE ABSOLUTE WORST...and I'd been working with this population for years and years. BUT THEY WERE STILL HOPEFUL AND TRYING AND VERY WILLING TO REACH DOWN INTO THEIR STILL VIBRANT HEARTS AND TRY TO EXPRESS THOSE BEATS. Yes, they were emotionally disturbed, but they were all still trying to rise up.
What did it teach me about the human heart? It's damn powerful and resilient and it floats, always bobbing up in the murky water of life.
To buy the book, email directly at leannegrabel.com. She has copies and is glad to sell for $10 and $2 shipping.