by Laurie Loftus, Institutional Giving Manager
On June 4, for the fifth year in a row, Performing Arts Workshop published an anthology of poems written by students at Marin Juvenile Hall’s Loma Alta High School with our poet in residence, Raphael Cohen. As in previous years, we celebrated this accomplishment with a reading from the anthology and treated the students to cake to mark the festive occasion.
In many ways, students here are like students at any middle or high school. They build walls around themselves. They can break through brilliantly on the page and never utter a word in class. Often, some of the most shut-down in outward presentation are the most vivid and daring writers.
But Loma Alta students don’t need reminding that this is no ordinary class. They wear Hall-issued orange T-shirts that swim on them, and the white tube socks and rubber sandals you see on TV prison shows. For pens, they use the skinny, bendy ink tubes removed from their plastic holders. Officers sit at the back of the room, and their probation officers can pull them from class at any time. Seeing them in their seats, you can read on their faces what one student expressed in a poem this year: “I can’t even push a door open in this building.”
Over the course of a semester, many students pass in and out of the class. Some leave, never to come back. Others return more than once, and a few stay in for four or five months at a stretch. Having taught writing, I can’t imagine the challenges of presiding over a classroom whose enrollment shifts from day to day. How to build on a lesson? How to maintain the trust you’ve built, and continually re-build it? I’ve asked several teaching artists about this, and they’ve told me about various strategies they devise to minimize the disruptions of students coming and going. Going deeper into the art form, bonding over a shared interest or love of words, and relying on students who have been in the class a while are a few common strategies I’ve heard our teaching artists describe.
Only four students were in the class on June 4. They were outnumbered more than two-fold by adults, including staff and teaching artists from Performing Arts Workshop and TeamWorks, whose residency helped students produce the vibrant artwork in the anthology. Juvenile Hall Director Matt Perry was there; teacher Bart Jones spoke heartfelt words of encouragement in the accomplishments and potential that the published anthology represented, and the importance of having a voice and a public platform as an artist.
The young people in these classes carry heavy weights. Even as we celebrated their accomplishments, encouraging them and inspiring them to see the best parts of themselves, sadness was painfully palpable in the room. As I scanned the room, wondering about the ways in which various adults may have failed them, I found myself also hopeful: Do they believe that we all actually really care about them? Does it get through?
The one student in the room who had something published in the book was especially reticent. We gave each of the students a copy. Since he’s in it, I asked if he wanted more copies. To circulate to family, a friend, someone close, I thought but did not say. He said “No, I’m good” and looked down at his desk.
I threw a few extra anthologies on his book pile when he stepped out of the room.
The public defender who attended the celebration enthusiastically offered to locate the published poets so she could give them each a copy of the book. To the best of our knowledge, this has never happened before. She seemed as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being able to place the book in the hands of its authors.
Before we cut the cake, those in the room read poems from the book aloud. Teaching artist Raphael Cohen led us all off with a simply sung version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Alien (Hold on to Your Dream)”:
Hold on. Though it may not be a lot, you got to
Hold on. Cause you know it’s all you got
No matter the consequences or the fear that grips your senses
You have got to hold on to your dreams.
We proudly share a few highlights from A More Perfect Fate, whose title, like the title of this story, was taken from this poem:
To Blame & To Change
To blame is to formulate
a method of escape
and engage in verbal debate.
To blame is strange
because we hide from an unknown fate.
Blame is like a profound strain
on the human brain
and stains the public domain.
To change is to realize
the rules of the game
and when you know the rules
then you can play.
When you change
the blame and the hate
they fade away
and what you’re left with
is space to create
a more perfect fate.
My life is like Jordan
I’m over all my opponents
when I’m in the air
I stay soaring
I’m always scoring
like a boat
but I still like
I cover up
with a peacoat
but if you get foul with me
I might shoot you
just like a free throw
Not So Different
Different from other people
now I’m not so sure.
Sit down on my front steps
smoking a cigarette.
Looking at the street
the cement, the doors.
Watch as white people walk by
some just walk, some say hi.
I get the hint
that we aint that different
just ’cause the color of our skin.
Is it because we’re all human, not perfect?
Is it because we all find it so hard to listen?
Words become inspirational
not just the rational.
Does it matter where you’re from?
Whether poor or rich in the Bay
we all call this place home.
We as people need to break out
from our ignorance.
Give a chance
just to stand
away from the nonsense you hear
but don’t take nothing away from.
Much gratitude to Loma Alta High School / Marin County Juvenile Hall, and especially Bart Jones; our brave and brilliant teaching artists Raphael Cohen and Freddy Gutierrez; and the Marin Community Foundation for recognizing the value of this work and making it possible to publish the anthology for the fifth year in a row.