Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
May 07
Good for You!

Though Pongo is completely focused on the youth in our program, there have been a few surprising times when the teens have taken care of me. I appreciate it, but I also think it shows a talent in them.

I remember working with a young man in juvenile detention who was gang involved. He wrote about feeling forced to be a man, in the gang way, by carrying a gun on the streets and dealing drugs. He wrote about not knowing any other life. On a deeper level, he wrote about not having a dad, about struggles with loneliness.  He had been suspicious of the writing at first, and we talked for a long time before we began. But when we were done, as he was leaving, he turned to me and said, “It’s very nice of you, sir, to take your time to help young people.”

Once I was leading a poetry workshop with a large group of youth at the state psychiatric hospital. After a nice beginning, they wanted to move on from the writing activities that I had brought. They wanted to write on their own, about issues that were very much on their minds. They worked quietly. And as they finished I would call individuals forward to read. While each person read, the other youth would pause, listen, and applaud, and then continue with their own work. Though I rarely become emotional while working with kids, the writing in this session was so poignant, dealing with suicidal feelings, that I started to cry. The group was calm and quiet, and one teen walked to the back of the room to get me a box of tissues. And we carried on.

It’s stating the obvious to talk about distressed teens and their ability to care. I don’t want my words to have the opposite effect from what I intend, by implying that this caring is special. A very powerful theme in the writing of abused and neglected teens, for example, is the suffering of their siblings. It’s just that, amidst the distractions that can occur in relationships between adults and youth, I find it useful to remind myself sometimes that teens’ ability to care is a source of their resilience and a foundation for good dialogue.

I remember six years ago in juvenile detention when I was introducing Pongo to a group. A young man who had previously worked with Pongo was enthusiastically describing his own writing skill and his expectation of becoming a rich and successful poet. I tried to explain that people don’t get rich from poetry, that poetry is a great way to help yourself and others. The young man insisted he would become famous, and rich. I was in some kind of mood that day, and I humorlessly persisted in saying no. I persisted. Finally I explained, as an illustration, that poetry had always been important to me, but that I had just published my first book of poetry, and I was 55.

The detention teens got excited in a way I didn’t expect. “You just published a book. Good for you!” They applauded me. “Good for you!”