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by John Cosgrove
The writing project grew out of my earlier experiences teaching yoga at NCJJC. I would often read a poem at the beginning of my class to set a tone or intention for the class. At the end of class boys would sometimes comment about the poem, or tell me that they also write poetry. There seemed to be interest in a group activity, independent of yoga, dedicated to poetry. The writing project now serves as a complement to the trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness classes offered at NCJJC. Richard Gold in his book, “Writing With At-Risk Youth”, writes: “People who write poetry after trauma can learn to see themselves with pride, as individuals who have had difficult experiences–gaining a perspective beyond feelings of hurt, defectiveness, shame, and a sense of personal responsibility.” The project gives the boys and girls the opportunity to read, write, and share poetry; giving voice to their feelings, ideas, and personal stories.
The project has been both an eye-opener and a learning experience for me. In listening to the shared writing, I have become more sensitive to the life-stories behind the individual who now finds himself in juvenile detention/treatment. One activity that has been particularly revealing is the group poem. The group brainstorms topics of interest to them, generating a list that is then narrowed by discussion and vote to one topic. Giving choice generates much needed feelings of empowerment. Then each student writes at least one three line stanza on that topic. They may write as many stanzas as they wish. I then take their contributions, play with the ordering until I create an arrangement that seems to work as a complete poem. I type it up, print copies, and bring it to the next session for their approval. The topics that the groups have generated are, in themselves, revealing of what is on the minds of the boys and girls: burdens, pain, new beginnings, recovery, dreams and nightmares, America, stressin’, tryin’. These group poems are posted on the Shanthi website in “The Writing Project” found under the Our Approach menu.
On a personal level the writing project has allowed me to connect with some very amazing young people. I am retired from a 31 year career teaching in public high schools so I have spent most of my life around young adults. In the eyes of the general public, the residents of juvenile justice centers are sometimes demonized for their failings. But I have come to see that behind their failings are stories of hardship and the lottery of birth that leave me wondering where I would be under similar fate. I see in these young people the resolve to rise above the failings, to complete the program, and be released to a new world where ambitions can be fulfilled. I see the excitement and anticipation in the eyes and the smile of a resident who has made gold level, who has changed out of the uniform dress of lower levels into civilian clothes, who is ready for the transition out of limbo and back to the rhythm of their life. I see the young woman who aspires to become an actress. The young man who wants to get a degree in psychology and return to counsel other young juveniles who are struggling. The young woman who loves science, even physics, and wants to become a NASA scientist. The young man who wants to join the National Guard so he can give back to the community, as well as learn the discipline required in the military. The young woman who wrote a modernized Romeo and Juliet poem, reminiscent of the theme of West Side Story, and revealed that she fell so in love with Shakespeare during an English class that she went on the read other Shakespeare plays on her own. Classroom teachers can only dream of such students. And, so, when I am walking out of the building after a writing session, I find myself wishing, secretly cheering, that the young people I have just spent time with will see their dreams fulfilled.