Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Oct 12
I Did Not Ask to be Different


By Shaun McMichael, Pongo Mentor & Youth Advocate


   

Out of all the amazing poems submitted in the October through December 2015 quarter, several poems stood out. We’ll open with the winner of the Pongo Prize:

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DIDN’T ASK
Everyone wants to be different,
But not like this.
The struggle, the pain, the guilt.
The feeling that no one understands.

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.

I try to remember to do my best every day because the next day might be worse.
I want to run a 5k.
I want to be on the honor roll.
I want to be a teacher.
But what if it gets too bad?
Will I ever finish college?
Will I ever hold a job?
Will I ever get to hold my own newborn child?
Or will I sit alone unable to move from the fear of getting worse?

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.

But what if this difference can make me stronger?
What if I can be the voice for the people who are sitting alone?
What if I can be the teacher who understands?

What if I can prove that being different made me better?
I can
And I will.

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.
But I’m glad.

___

 

This poet’s questions about their potential echo the questions we all have before we begin something—even if it’s getting out of bed to start the day. But this poet is honest enough to ask these questions aloud, admitting that our potential for success or failure are equal parts hope and fear. Yet the poem is essentially the poet talking themselves into their own promise. The poet’s honest grappling is carried forward with the refrain I didn’t ask…The volta in the second to last stanza shows the poet answering their own question with assurance of victory (I can and I will) The final refrain resolves on I’m glad, symbolic of the poet accepting themselves and we have visions of this writer being that teacher who’s there, being that mom who cares.

Like “Didn’t Ask”, several other poems from this quarter embodied the voices of young people embracing who they are. “Strength” is one such example.

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STRENGTH
 I can be as strong as a black goddess,
Ready to show the world that I can be everything that everyone believes I can’t be.

I can be as strong as the brick walls of my home.
Pay attention to my mighty rocks of broken plaster.
I will hush anyone that comes to judge the way I feel about myself.

I can be strong in ways you don’t expect.
I can be as strong as a family,
Able to protect you from the harm of life in the real world.

My strength can be gentle
And strong as a bathtub,
Ready to wash away all your sorrows and worries.

I can be strong and change the world.
I can change your heart for good.
I can make you know that I am true.

___

Beginning with one of Pongo’s forms, this poet finds their voice, making unique comparisons for their inner strength (a black goddess, a bathtub). The poet also promises to rise above others’ low expectations for them (I can be everything that everyone believes I can’t be). Perhaps not all of us feel we can project the confidence in “Strength”. Maybe self-acceptance at times looks like admitting what we can and can’t commit to.

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I CAN’T
I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

It’s not natural for me to wear a smile every day.
I’m tired of pretending to be happy when I’m not.
It’s not natural for me to wear a smile every day.
I’m tired of pretending to be happy for the sake of their wellbeing.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

I feel my sanity slipping every time I put on that mask.
Every day I just slip closer and closer to the edge.
Every day I watch as I lean over the edge to look at my death.
I can feel the urge to jump every time I think about putting on that mask.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.
I can’t wear the smile they need me to so that their worlds don’t seem so bad.
I can’t be optimistic every time their lives turn bad when I’m a pessimist at heart.
I can’t be their rock when being their rock is slowly killing me.
I can’t keep going because it’s not natural for me.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

It’s not me.
I can’t.


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This poet leans towards authenticity in their refusal to wear “that mask” which feels akin to a death. Anyone who’s felt a loss when they’ve adopted a falsehood can empathize with this poem.

Of course, the alternative—knowing and loving ourselves—can be a challenge when our external circumstances seem to be telling us there’s something wrong with who we are or when there are parts of ourselves we want to change. Readers in such a situation can be inspired by these poets’ ability to love themselves even with unknowns and the ambivalence of others. This is modeled excellently for us by the honest words of our final featured poet:

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UNTITLED
I’m too scared. Too scared to speak my mind, too scared to say ‘hi’.
I’m not like others.
I’m a person with struggles.

Home isn’t a place for me.
There’s too much pain and stress that has me weeping.

I just wasn’t cool like the kids at my school.
I’ve learned that trying to fit in isn’t a good thing to do.

But I’m learning, I’m trying,
Always breaking down and crying.
Times are hard. I’m going to restart
Hopefully this will fix it all.

Every night I lie in bed thinking about my life.
What’s the meaning?
How can I live in the moment with life?
Staying strong, standing tall.

School has been going faster.
More homework, less sleep.
Every weekend isn’t always fine.
I carry pain everywhere I go, hiding it all inside
Wanting to let go.

I may be strong. I may know how to fight,
But every time, my soft spot comes out to save my life.

Times are hard, walking and feeling alone.
Keeping myself in long distance
So people don’t get annoyed.
What’s the meaning of love?
Why does it seem so mean?
I’m trying to become better,
Pushing negativity aside to have my days seem a bit brighter.

It’s hard to understand me. I know you can’t understand.
But open up your mind and look at where I stand.
I go through a lot. It’s hard to control.
You may think it’s easy, but I’m not strong enough to fight this battle alone.

I don’t want attention. I don’t need a pity party.
I’m fine by myself, standing here alone.
If you ask me what’s wrong, don’t expect me to tell the truth.
I’ll lie and smile at you.
You’ll believe it because you want to.

This is my story and I don’t want you to worry.
I’m fine, but just need space and time to gain my strength.

___

Throughout the blues poetry of this author’s narration, we get the sense that despite their loneliness and pain, they have solidarity within themselves (I’m fine by myself, standing here alone). The poet even has the consideration at the end to assure us they’ll be fine, knowing we might not ever be able to fully understand. Perhaps not, but we can’t help but be inspired by reading these words. 


A closing ‘thank you’ from the Pongo team to this poet and all poets who submitted this quarter. Thank you for inspiring us to love ourselves, to read and to write.

Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.