Motivating tough teen girls to write

It was the first time I’d witnessed someone getting punched, and it came in an unlikely setting: a writing workshop at a girls’ high school in South Los Angeles where I was volunteering as a mentor.

It was a small county-run school, a sort of last resort for girls who hadn’t succeeded at regular schools, and they were a tough bunch. Still, I hadn’t expected classroom violence. So when Gabriela, who was one of the class’s most enthusiastic writers, slammed a fist into the cheek of the girl next to her, I froze, stunned. Did I see what I just saw?

All doubt was dismissed when the victim lunged at her assailant. As other mentors and myself vainly tried to pull them apart, they tumbled to the ground, joined by fury and fistfuls of each other’s hair. The principal rushed in. They were yanked out, mothers were called.

After a year of mentoring those workshops, my respect for inner-city school teachers has doubled. Make that tripled. Just getting the students to pay attention was a monumental task. They would simply refuse to stop looking up Chanel handbags on their cell phones or chit-chatting about acrylic “coffin-style” nails. Every class there was at least one student who laid her head on the desk and napped, one who pulled a vanishing act after asking permission to go to the bathroom, one who assumed the role of disruptive clown.

But there were also students who would scribble away in their journals, the rare reigns of silence when all heads bowed to the task, and the occasional triumph of getting a piece of writing out of a really hard-core girl. That was what kept me going back week after week.

The purpose of the workshop was to encourage creative expression. We couldn’t be fussy, basically we were happy that they wrote anything. Their academic level was low. They’d ask what basic words like “obstacle” meant, stumble over reading anything comprising more than two syllables. But what they had plenty of was resiliency. These teens had experienced more in their young lives than many adults I know.

I never asked why they were in that school, but they would let slip bits and pieces of their stories. Two had been in juvenile hall. One had an ankle bracelet and was still on probation. Another had gone through AA on a court order. One was expecting a baby, another had just returned to school after having a baby, one had miscarried. One joked about being undocumented from Mexico while another mentioned suicide attempts.

Out of all the prompts, they most liked to write about their lives, and that’s where we had the best breakthroughs. Yajaira wrote a letter to her infant son, saying that even though his father had abandoned them, they didn’t need him anyway. Kaylee wrote a tribute to the strength of her mother, a single mom of five who had been a teenage mother and abused by boyfriends.

We had drama. Gabriela choked up as she read aloud her piece about a friend who had died. “I know who you’re talking about — the dead homie, Oscar,” another piped up. We held a moment of silence for the dead homie.

Another class ended in tears when Maritza, with a defiant toss of her hip-length hair, loudly declared that girls who got pregnant were stupid. That provoked an emotional defense from Janesha, who had given birth to stillborn twin girls a few months back and had been slept on a bus shelter bench during her pregnancy. After others stuck up for Janesha, Maritza broke down sobbing and apologized.

Over time their trust in me grew, and that was in of itself rewarding. Brianne showed me a letter, printed in pencil, from her boyfriend in county jail. Astrid confided that she wanted to be a sheriff’s deputy, but to keep it quiet since cops weren’t popular among her friends.

I wanted to return to the school this year but I couldn’t afford the time. But maybe something I said or did inspired one of these girls. Maybe one day they’ll keep a journal, write a poem, read a book, or maybe they’ll even reach for higher goals or make better choices in life. I can only hope.

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