Sometimes I travel to Asia, Africa, the Middle East; sometimes I teach creative writing workshops right here in Milwaukee. Immediately before either enterprise, I find myself wondering intensely why I'm rocking my boat. Yet I'm aware it's merely my anxiety about the unknown, and the unknown usually ends up worth knowing.
Last night I wasn't anticipating the start of a strenuous trip, but the first session of a workshop for Young Brothers and Sisters, a teenage group at an inner city Y. According to my Poets & Writers-Artreach grant, which I myself had written, in this initial session I would "bond" with my students, share my poetry and my own teenage years and learn a little about theirs. That's my usual approach, except for "sharing my own teenage years."
My diary from 1954, when I was sixteen, is a bit of an embarrassment. It's focused on boys, and its naiveté is almost amusing. Still, this dust-covered book, which I've wisely never shown to anyone, struck me as the perfect vehicle, and once I thought of using it, it seemed selfish not to follow through. So I typed up some excerpts and figured I'd read whatever was appropriate:
Tues, March 16, 1954...Everything seems so futile. I'll have to wait at least three weeks for John to call and he may never call anyway...
Wed, Mar 17, 1954...Thinking about John is just driving me crazy. I can't concentrate on anything because I wonder whether I'll ever see him again...
Sun, Mar 28, l954...Yesterday I purposely went to the subway station where John kissed me and went to the Museum the same route I used with him. And I went to the Museum Garden because I had been there with him. Sometimes I'm very silly, but it's fun to be that way.
Mon, Mar 29, 1954...I had my hair cut and thinned today by George the barber. My head feels much lighter now. I'd been worried that I'd have to get my hair cut short, it was getting so heavy.
George said that even if I asked him to cut my hair short, he wouldn't. He also told me I'm pretty and if his daughter grows up like me, he'll be perfectly satisfied. A lot of people have been telling me I'm pretty recently. But I'm really not. Sometimes I wonder how pretty I actually am. Sometimes I do feel pretty but other times I feel horrible, especially in school and when I wear my glasses. I won't complain about my looks, though, 'cause I guess I'm lucky in many ways.
Some people would consider themselves lucky if they had enough paper, pen, ink, and time to keep a diary like this one. There are a lot of people luckier than me, but there are many many more who are not. I guess everyone has a fair share of troubles. My main problem is my eyes. I'm horribly near-sighted. But there are some people who can't see at all and I can see pretty well with glasses on...
Sat, Apr 3, l954...That Mr. Wiener (my painting teacher) is a real nut. He's thirty at least and he asked me out again today, this time for sodas. He also passed notes to me.
Do you love me?
I'm not that nuts, so I wrote: I love everybody (sometimes).
When? Between 3:15 and 5:15? he wrote back.
I don't love anybody when I'm painting.
Then I should stop you from painting.
Then I'd be furious.
Mon, Apr 5, 1954...I was wishing John would call tonight. I don't think he'll ever call. I feel like crying. I just don't feel like doing any work...I'm so worried I keep on eating. Not only that, Mother keeps on talking on the telephone so I couldn't possibly get a call...
Thurs, Apr 8, l954...John didn't call last night. I guess I really didn't expect him to, but I was so mad and upset that I searched the house for cigarettes. I found two unopened packages of Pall Malls, opened one, and took a couple of cigarettes. I smoked them both and felt ready to faint. I took my clothes off, didn't even get into my pajamas, and crawled into bed...
I met my students last night. The class was composed of a half dozen twelve and thirteen year old boys and a few slightly older girls. After names, ages (they pegged me somewhere between 25 and 100), interests, and other introductory chatter, I performed my WATER poem, to show them that in my classes anything goes. I want them to relax, express themselves freely, be playful, and have fun. They had more fun than I'd intended with WATER: they laughed and laughed. One boy, Marquies, couldn't stop. This has, by the way, happened before. "What's so funny?" I asked. Theresa said she'd never seen a poem like that, especially the way I move my arms when I do it. I don't recite that poem; I warble it and dance it, and I have the students echo back.
Now that everyone was loosened up, I performed my CHANGES IN THE LAKE poem, and we discussed its meaning, that a lake, and a person, can be beautiful even though polluted, and that the lake looks different every moment of its existence, and so are we, different every moment, and different from everyone else. Then finally I couldn't put it off: it was diary time. So I read it. They listened attentively, and the girls in particular were fascinated. They wanted me to bring the original next time. "All I wrote about in it was boys boys boys. It's boring even to me, although it's about me, forty-two years ago." They still wanted to see it.
Well, you keep a diary and bring it in, I suggested to anyone who would.
Sure, said Trenice, I'll bring in my diary, and you can read it. Then she modified her statement, you can read parts of it.
And you can read parts of mine, I told her.
It was a lively group, perhaps too lively at moments, yet interested in whatever I had to say, and very communicative. Time was running out when I finally told them to write about an object special to them. Theresa said that nothing mattered to her, that she never kept anything. She began to write, then tore the paper out of her pad and wrinkled it up. I told her to write about nothing mattering.
At that moment Adolph came to pick me up.
"You her husband?"
"Yes, he is," I replied and introduced him. His name certainly had an impact on the girls.
"You ever heard of Adolf Hitler?" "Are you Jewish?" They were fascinated that both of us are. I mentioned that Adolph was born just before Hitler came into power.
"You mean you lived during that time! It seems so long ago!"
The girls began to talk about Anne Frank, "Hey, she kept a diary, too!" They described Nazi atrocities and experiments, would have gone on indefinitely.
They were anxious to see Adolph's sculpture and my drawings, anxious to learn, about almost anything.
Nicole said we have all sorts of talent in the group, a dancer (Marquies), a tap dancer (her), rap singers. I'd like to take advantage of that for our final meeting, a party with senior citizens who also are writing as part of this grant.
First Grade: You meet new people and you pee on yourself.
Second Grade: You start your first homework assignment and invent the Hebe Jeebees.
Third Grade: You start wearing plastic jewelry and paint your fingernails with crayons.
Fourth Grade: You experience the pain of getting beat up and the pleasure of beating someone up.
Fifth Grade: Your first graduation. You get dressed up all pretty with makeup and your first headache.
Sixth Grade: You experience the pain of PMS and you meet your first boyfriend.
Seventh Grade: Your first kiss, wet and good.
Eighth Grade: Your fifth boyfriend and 200th kiss. You get your head broke and you break a couple.
I promised I'd bring in some more of my diary tonight, so I'd better:
Saturday, Mar 4, l954 ...I spoke to Mitch on the telephone for quite a while today (almost an hour). He wanted to know why I don't sign my letters love, so I told him that I don't make a habit of it. I just couldn't say that I don't like him enough. I feel sorry for him though. He hitched 200 miles each way just to take me out and then didn't even get to see me. He keeps telling me that he likes me and misses me when he's away, etc.., but I never say anything like that to him. He was wondering how much longer we'd be going together, so I asked him why. He said because I seem to be avoiding him. Whenever he asks me out, I'm always doing something else. I said I'm not avoiding him, I can't help it if I'm always busy.
Poor Mitch! Next time I get a chance, I'll have to tell him exactly how I feel. Of course that's sort of tough because I can't really say. I like him as a friend, we get along very well and have a lot in common. We're never at a loss for words with each other. But I have no sexual attraction for him.
Today I listened to "The Barber of Seville" over the radio. I feel very cultured. Life is so much more interesting when one has more interests.
Thurs, March 11, 1954...I'm so excited, I'm afraid I won't be able to sleep tonight. Dick called fifteen minutes early and I'm going out with him tomorrow night, to the movies. I hope he can find the house... Later. It's two o'clock and I just can't get to sleep. I keep thinking of Dick and John and keep wishing for tomorrow. My cold feels better now. I sure hope it is because I'd feel awfully foolish on a date if I had to blow my nose every few minutes. At first I was sort of scared of Dick because, although I like him, he seems sort of fast. But he sounded so nice over the telephone tonight and he said to me "I'll come over and meet your parents." That sort of quelled my anxiety. I wish I could sleep. Tomorrow will come much faster that way...
Fri, Mar 12...Dick got here about ten after eight tonight. We decided to go to the movie in Tenafly, but when we left the house, Dick wanted to go to a drive-in...I was really in a crazy-silly mood...I didn't want to go to a drive-in (or maybe I did) so I argued with Dick and said, "You're sorry you took me out, aren't you?" He said of course not, that he wouldn't drive out all the way from Jersey City if he didn't want to take me out. But he still insisted on a drive-in and I knew it was hopeless to argue, so we went to one on Route 4. Two cowboy pictures were playing, and I hate cowboy pictures. Not only that, I didn't care to wear my glasses. So when we got into the movie, I turned off the sound and said, "I don't want to look at the movie, I want to look at you!" Actually that wasn't a bad idea, because Dick is extremely nice to look at... I said..."Let's talk!"
... Dick said, "What shall we talk about?"
"I don't know. What do you want to talk about?"
"The world situation. What do you think of _____?
And so it went. And every once in a while he'd put his face in a position to kiss me, and I'd move mine away.
Finally he said, "Can't you tell when a boy wants to kiss you?"
I said, "Of course. Why do you think I'm moving away?"
But later I changed my mind because I had really wanted him to kiss me all the time. And mmmmmmm! He kisses longer than any other boy I've ever been out with. Each kiss ranges from about two to five minutes. He kisses with his mouth open, but I like it. At one point we just stayed there, with our eyes closed, not kissing but feeling perfectly wonderful. He's so strong and good-looking and had such a nice soft cashmere sweater on. And I was just in the mood.
When Adolph dropped me off for last night's session, Martinus, playing outside, called to me, "When are we going to have another meeting?"
"Right now," I replied, and he rushed in with me. I wonder if the children know ahead of time that I'm coming.
Their first questions to me were, Did you bring the diary? Did you bring the diary? Is your husband coming? Will you do the WATER poem again?
My first question to them was, what's my name? After a lot of guessing, only Nicole finally hit upon it. So I didn't have to apologize for any names I might confuse: Marcus, Marquies, Mauries, Maurice, and Martinus, five 12 and 13-year-old boys.
I gave them each a copy of my WATER poem, and performed it once again, then they performed it for me, and, at their insistence, I performed it still again for them.
I was about to do another poem; they were about to drown me out with chatter. Suddenly a complete lecture popped out of my mouth, almost as if someone else had delivered it. I told them that when I teach, I'm not used to having other people talk. I expect them to listen to what I have to say just as I listen to what they have to say. They can talk to each other any time, but they probably don't always get to know a writer or an artist, nor even that many white women. We're coming from very different lives and really I think the only hope for the world is that we start listening to each other.
That got their attention.
I said that my diary was written over forty years ago, and I find it somewhat embarrassing. I'm a different person now in many way, or I wouldn't be able to read it to them. Think of what you'll be like in forty years, I suggested. Nicole said she could tell me right now: she'll be married with two children and living in a mansion. Marquies didn't want to live in a mansion; if he did, he might get shot.
So I'm 58 now, I reminded them, this was me at sixteen, and I've never shown the diary to anyone else till now. They're just a little younger than I was when I wrote it, and I thought it would be nice to share it with them. I read my excerpts, stopping a few times to ask, Aren't you bored? They weren't.
I skipped that last paragraph, about kissing Dick. After all, this group was mainly preadolescent boys. I was amazed they were interested at all.
Someone asked if I ended up kissing him, and Nilsa, a fifteen-year-old girl said, "If she'd wanted you to know, she would have told you." Twelve-year-old Marquies said, "Can't you see that embarrasses her?"
I had bought them each a pocket-sized pad. Are these to keep? they wanted to know. I said yes, they should keep them in their pockets all the time and write whatever they feel like writing. I'd also like them to take notes on anything they see in their neighborhood, little things they might not usually notice, and the people, the animals, the stores, conversations overheard. Then next week they can write about that.
They said they didn't need to take notes, they could write about that right now. So I took advantage of the enthusiasm of the moment.
"You don't want to hear what happens on my block."
"Yes, I do."
They got down to work immediately, all that energy suddenly harnessed.
As long as you're writing it now, you can use your big pads, I suggested. Most kept writing in the tiny pads, perhaps because they were their own, and more comfortable and private.
Nilsa said she can't write about what happens on her block because her grandma won't let her out of the house. "So write about that," I told her.
A lovely woman about my age wandered in, looked around the room, then just stood there. I glanced at her several times, but she didn't acknowledge me. Finally I asked, "Would you like to sit down?"
And she replied, "Yes, I'm too tired to keep on standing."
I introduced myself and asked her name. It was Emma. I gave her pen and paper. "What should I write?" she asked. "About your neighborhood," I replied, and she joined the silence.
By the time their concentration began to evaporate, Adolph had arrived to pick me up. They read what they had written, fights, big kids picking on small ones, guns, nasty people next door tipping over garbage pails. The only positive statement came from Emma, about shoveling each other's walks when it snows, helping each other in emergencies, developing a sense of community. Emma, it turned out, is the grandmother who doesn't let Nilsa out of the house. Despite Emma's presence, Nilsa wrote that she lives in a ratty house, she hates it, and wishes it would burn down.
Emma wasn't particularly delighted, despite the fact that Nilsa's composition was intense and well-written. She pointed out that she owns some other houses, that Nilsa has lived in the same one all her life, but if she doesn't like it, she can move out right now. And when Emma retires from her job at the Juvenile Detention Center, she'll move out of the city and into a house she owns in the countryside. Juvenile Detention Center was the magic phrase, and everyone wanted to know what it was like. Emma told them she's seen things there they don't even want to hear about. Nicole wanted to visit sometime. "You don't want to go there ever," said Emma, "You make sure you never have to go there." She said she's worked with rapists, murderers, and the worst thing is, she's never heard anyone express regret or indicate in any way he's sorry about his crimes. Instead they compete to see who's record is the worst.
The "Y" closes up at 8. When Nicole gets home, she makes dinner, washes the dishes, goes downstairs to see if there's laundry to fold, goes up to take a shower, then cleans the bathroom. "My bathroom is spotless," she boasted.
"Your bathroom?" asked someone.
"Yes, my bathroom," she replied.
"You actually put your hands in that water and wash the dishes?" asked Emma several times. Nicole insisted she does.
As Adolph and I were getting into the car after the session, Marquies came running over to us. "Next time bring your kids."
"Maybe I'll bring one of them, what if I bring my mother?" "You can bring her along, too, but bring your kids."
I wasn't going to read any more diary excerpts, but then I found my diary from 1951, when I, too, was thirteen.
Sunday, Jan 14, l951
Today nothing special happened, so I'll tell about Lynn. He is in the ninth grade and I'm only in the eighth, so next year we won't be going to the same school.
He lives about two blocks from me...and walks to and from school every day. Thus I walk to and from school every day too. Last year he won the serious category of our school's public speaking contest with a speech on "The Man Without a Country." He is a member of the school dramatic club...plays the piano...likes to write, and is a reporter for our school newspaper. I am the feature editor...He isn't a showoff like most other boys.
Monday, Jan 14, 1951
Janie and I started ballroom dancing at the Community Center today. Even though we're both only 13 1/2, we joined the 14-17 year old group and got away with it...
I went to the library after school. I wanted to improve my eyes as I am nearsighted. Therefore I got out a book on how to see without glasses. Shorthand sounded interesting, so I got a shorthand dictionary. Tomorrow it goes back. How was I to know that there's a different sign for every word? I thought that I would try to learn some ballet, but the book described whole ballets, not the steps. Ballroom dancing is quite necessary for a girl my age, so I got out a book on that ...
After a week in New York, I'm headed home, cruising at 33,000 feet. Every day since my last workshop, I've planned to write about it. Now I finally can; but the workshop seems so long ago. I've traveled 2000 miles, performed, danced, drawn, visited, nine days feels like nine weeks. When I was riding on the "L" train to Brooklyn last night, three black teenagers strutted into the car, stood right in front of me, and stared until one of the boys' eyes momentarily met mine. You're not supposed to do that, are you, look strange males square in the eye, especially in the subway. Yet if you're alive and curious, that's bound to happen. The girl plunked down next to me. Then I could hear the boys shouting a few feet away. I refused to look, no more caught glances, but finally I peeked. One was rapping, the other break-dancing. Their belts were made from bullets, bullet belts, what about knives? They might be delightful kids, break-dancing like Marquies. Or they could be of more sinister bent. The other passengers clearly assumed the latter, tension palpable, only a rap song audible. I hate this constant need for wariness.
At last week's workshop, only the girls showed up, five of them, with enough energy for ten, especially Nicole, who seems unable to stop talking, and part of me doesn't want her to. For she expresses herself poetically, and with humor. The challenge is to get her to write the way she talks, with the wealth of detail and the wisecracks. She's younger than I realized, only thirteen. All of them are young. What will happen as they age? What's out there for them, what's outside of the Y?
I brought copies of Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" and an audiocassette of her performing it. They read along with her, without my suggesting it. Afterwards I asked them to think about the poem and to write poetic portraits of themselves. Nicole said she can't write about herself, though that's in part what she had done the intervening week in her little notebook. In fact before we could listen to the cassette, Nicole insisted that we listen to her homework, about her teacher who is so fake and who wears so much plastic that if she got near too much heat, she would melt.
In their usual non-stop mode, Nicole and Trenice discussed a young man. "He's caught in the 60's," they said, and Nicole went on to describe his button-down shirt and tight black pants. You don't have to write about yourselves, I told them, you can write a description of someone else.
"Anyone at all?"
"Yes, anyone." They all began to write immediately.
WHY SHOULD THEY CARE?
She's a strong and intelligent person
But people see nothing but the color of her skin
Some say she ugly person that you had ever seen
Because she not the image they want to see,
But to her she was the beautiful that ever could be
Why do she have to stand to other standards
When it shouldn't even really matter?
Was I happy with last night's session? That's what I keep asking myself, and I give me mixed reviews. Although Gerry, the staff person attending my workshops, had commented that it was a really good poetry session, something was bothering me.
I brought my 83-year-old mother, who became a newspaper reporter at age 16, when her father died. She was a pilot when few women were, at Teeterboro Airport, where Lindbergh and Earheart also flew. Mother saved her money and bought an airplane when she was still a teenager. The children peppered her with questions, what was the happiest thing she ever did (Dancing in the streets), the saddest (Running away from home. What age? Eighteen. Eighteen!). Did she live through the depression? Did she have a car when she went to college (A car? Are you kidding?)? What was college tuition then? (Maurice said she could finish college now if she has $30,000). What were the most expensive brand-name shoes then? Was her husband in World War II? Did she live in a ghetto?
After everyone interviewed Mother, I did my guns and drugs poem, mainly because I wanted them to think about what they personally can do about these issues. Marquies, however, went on another one of his laughing jags. If the poem had at first seemed too serious to me, it certainly no longer did. Someone else started laughing, and I was tempted to end my performance right there. Instead I continued, cutting several sections. But as I neared the end, they suddenly started beating out the rhythm to my words. Gerry told them to stop, and I told them to keep on, that I often collaborate with an African drummer for this poem. If we had more sessions left, I'd build on that, have them write group poems with drumbeats.
Actually I knew what was bothering me. I'd inadvertently upset Marquis. He's very self-assertive, lively, and expressive, but says he can't write. Despite this problem, he always comes in full of enthusiasm and makes sure he sits next to me. Last night for the first time he was excited about what he had written and was ready to read it aloud while everyone else was still writing. I told him to write some more since no one else was ready. But later on DeVon went first, with a rap poem that everyone loved, a couple of other people read, then I turned around to call on Marquies, and my mother pointed out that Gerry had his hand up. As staff person, Gerry has priority. He'd written a poem, in fact is taking a course in creative writing. That's perfect. Once my workshops are over, he can keep everyone involved and working.
Gerry's poem was complex for the kids. He used a large vocabulary, so we spent a long time exploring the meaning, and the concepts, like not succumbing to peer pressure. Then a few people left the room to make copies of their poems. At that point I noticed Marquies. His head was down, and he looked absolutely deflated. "Oh, Marquies, you never got to read yours! Don't worry, we've still got time." But he no longer wanted to read it. I looked at it. His spelling made it almost unintelligible. We regrouped and I finally got him to mutter his touching piece that tried to distinguish between a friend and a best friend. A best friend is someone who really listens to you.
Between sessions I called Gerry and told him I was worried that I'd hurt Marquies' feelings and to please make sure he comes next time. He said not to worry about Marquies.
I guess he was right. Marquies sat down right next to me for our last session, ebullient as always.
I'd decided beforehand to ask everyone to write about their day, especially since that's what the grant specified, and had printed out a list of questions to pass out to everyone:
What was today like?
What did you dream about?
What was the first thing you saw when you opened your eyes?
Did you look out the window?
What did you hear and smell when you woke up?
What were you thinking about?
Did you like your breakfast?
What did you see, hear, and smell when you walked outside?
Was there something you wanted to do, but couldn't do?
Did anything make you happy?
Did anything make you angry?
Did anything surprise you?
Did anyone speak to you?
Did you overhear any conversations?
Did anything make you laugh?
Did you see anything you never saw before?
Did you talk to someone you never spoke to before?
Did you forget anything you should have remembered?
Did you learn anything?
What was the hardest thing you did?
What was the easiest?
It worked. The minute they got the list, they had endless ideas to put down. If they keep the lists, perhaps they can go on indefinitely. Of course life seldom works that way. People start out with enthusiasm, then gradually slow down as the original impetus disappears.
Antonio mentioned that he wrote a poem once, but no longer had a copy. I asked him to recite it, and he could remember some lines. I suggested he try to rewrite it, told him it probably would be even better the second time:
THE WORLD IS COLLAPSING
This world is collapsing, people are killing people over quarters, cigarettes, and stupid things. War takes the place of peace and will death take the place of life and SATAN take the place of God? We take and take and take, but don't give back. All we are concerned about is money, cars, and sex. Loving one another is no longer tolerated. You must love many to be accepted in today's society. The end is near and so is this poem, and as I go please think and understand the message I'm giving to you.
Though the sign tacked over the door said welcome, it could have said good-bye. Only one senior showed up, perhaps because of transportation problems. Several of my teens were there, especially the hams among them.
Nicole had typed my students' work into the computer and the Y staff compiled a book of those and the seniors' poems. Somehow Marquies' poem wasn't there. Before he had a chance to get upset, I told him to dictate it to me. Then we made copies and inserted it into all the books. Another hurt-feeling disaster was averted. In fact Marquies and Maurice enjoyed the role of performers, reading the poems of absent students in addition to their own. Marquies preferred not to dance as part of the program, but did a short performance for me later on. To taped accompaniment DeVon and a friend, all smiles , charm, and nervousness, rapped a song they'd finished writing too late for the book, not too late for a videotape. I'll try to arrange that. Nicole and Trenice arrived late; they had to baby-sit for Nicole's foster siblings. Nicole's usual effervescence had changed to irritability, a reminder of how little I know of these children's lives.