It seems fitting to share this post on the observance of Imbolc, the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Winter may still be here, but new life and flowers are that much closer. This week two of my female students (in case you don’t know I work in a county corrections facility) took the brave risk of being rejected, exposed, and vulnerable. Even while they count down their days to exiting the jail, by accepting this challenge, they planted the seeds for future possibilities. My students wrote and submitted pieces to a publication for adult women who are in school for their High School Equivalency diploma.
The topic was the hero’s journey and had a list of prompts to chose from. I sat down with each of my students and read the list until I saw their eyes get wide. My budding essayist wrote about her allies, enemies, and tests. My natural poet wrote about her mentor.
I’m not a writing teacher, and I’ve never helped anyone write their first anything before. When it comes to writing, I’m used to being on the student/learner end of things. I wish I’d had a better strategy from the start and felt more confident in what I was doing. Since I write essays that was at least familiar, but I did my best with the poetry. I made it clear I wouldn’t write anything for them and didn’t want to quiet their voice.
The essayist asked for help with getting started. So, I went to the board, and we brainstormed questions, ideas, and worked through the vocabulary that she didn’t understand from the prompt. She’s smart and tough, and I asked her to be vulnerable and open. I promised she would be safe. It’s taken me months to earn her trust, and I didn’t want to break it. We mapped out ideas of how she could describe this new world she’s been living in for the past three months of her county year (eight months total in jail).
We filled the whiteboard with ideas. She took the list back to her cell, but I told her not to work on it just yet. Instead, I asked her to read over her notes, then walk her laps around the pod and read books while the thoughts grew in her head. In the next class, she started writing. When she finished her first draft, she’d announce, “All done!” But nope, our next step was editing and rewriting. I read through the essay on my own and covered her pages with ink. She was deflated at my marks, and I had to explain that I marked so much because I loved it and wanted everyone else to love it too.
I talked her through my feedback, and she took notes, then started the process of rewriting. She worked in her cell, in the other class, as well as mine. She even asked officers to read it and provide feedback. My pride in her swelled with each new draft. Her essay shared the difficulty of her experience as an inmate and an adult student. She owned up to her actions and took responsibility for walking the path that lead her to where she is today. She even gave her teachers a shout out for their support and it makes me choke up every time I read it. I suggested she read Maya Angelou, Roxane Gay, and Oyinka Braithwaite while she was writing. So glad I set up the lending library this year.
For my poet, my first request of her was not to swear. She blew up on the page once she got the first word written. For her, it was about creating a clear structure and flow, cutting excess words, giving the reader room to breathe as she describes the overdose that stopped her heart and her grandmother saving her life. She has poetry in her veins the way John Elder Robison describes calculus being inside of him. As a non-poet, I did my best to guide her and offer encouragement. She has been in and out of lock-ins and solitary for violent encounters and her unmanaged mental health issues since we met. At this point when she isn’t in school, she’s alone in her cell the rest of the day. Yet, she too worked outside of class. I recommended she read Augusten Burroughs, Roxane Gay, and Mary Oliver. She loves Augusten. I wish I had more of his books in our little library for her to read.
I sat with each of them and read their pieces out loud while asking them to practice listening to how it sounds, then to watch how and why I made changes. For the last go-throughs, I made them read it to me and to practice making corrections. I wanted them to walk away with the ability to use their voices to tell their stories. The essayist has already started a new piece for another publication. I made multiple copies of each of their pieces so they can share them with friends and family. Their pride radiates off them.
I don’t know if either piece will be accepted and published. Rejection is a large part of writing, and I explained that to them, but also let them know there were other places to submit. Not gonna lie, I’ll be wicked pissed if they’re rejected. Working with them on their projects has been the most fun and rewarding thing I’ve done in a really long time. I want to help more people tell their stories.