To Ms. Schicht’s class at Global Connections High School in SeaTac, Washington: Thank you for writing and sharing your poetry. I’ve published the three poems you sent me, at the end of this blog, and I look forward to reading your anthology!
To other teachers and counselors who read my blog: I’d like to share the email from Melissa Struyk, who interned with Leslie Schicht this year. Melissa writes about how she and Leslie used the Pongo web site in teaching their poetry unit, and about some of the cool outcomes for the students. These outcomes included the fact that the teachers deepened their knowledge of the students, and the students deepened their connections to one another. Aside from its association with Pongo, which makes me proud, this poetry unit is beautifully conceived. Please check it out!
The email from Melissa is very timely, because Pongo still has places (and SCHOLARSHIPS) for our upcoming workshop for teachers and counselors on May 14 in Seattle.
Hello Richard. My name is Melissa Struyk, I took the Pongo workshop for teachers with you last spring. I have used your online website resources so many times in the last year, your site is just so wonderful! Thank you for the teaching support for in the classroom.
I'm writing to you today because this past winter I was interning with a Language Arts class out at Global Connections High School in SeaTac, WA. While in this internship, my cooperating teacher Leslie Schicht and I used your site to do a two-week creative poetry writing unit with our 9th grade students. The demographics of Global Connections HS is highly diverse – 24% white, 23% black, 29% Hispanic, 23% Asian/Pacific Islander, 1% Native American. In the school, 23% of students are English Language learners.
This poetry unit was extremely successful; we really got to know our students, and they also made deep connections with each other. We created an anthology (one poem submitted by each student), and the class took a vote on their three top poems. The main reason I'm writing you is to find out if I can submit these top 3 winners for the next $50 Pongo Poetry Prize in July!
Here is our story. We began this poetry unit at the end of March. We had two weeks to cover the poetry writing, and our goal as a class was to create a class anthology, where each student would submit a piece of their best work. To start the unit, Leslie used your website to pull out a few poetry outlines, and she created a packet of different types of poems for students to look at. Then, each day, students were given a task of writing a poem based on a particular style or technique. In the writing process, the most difficult part for students seemed to be getting started. When we introduced poetry to them, about half of the class moaned while the other half seemed excited or neutral. We used a few of your fill-in-the-blank poems the first few days to help get the kids started. This helped those who felt daunted or overwhelmed with writing a poem. It also helped students to see the different ways that a poem can be structured. Some students didn't want to use the fill-in-the-blank, but they did use the topic that was suggested - such as "Self-Portrait" and "Ten Reasons to Love Me."
In addition to using your website, students were required to understand a list of poetry terms (simile, metaphor, imagery, stanzas, line breaks, etc.), and then they had to practice writing their own poems using some of these techniques. After the first week of poetry writing, we pushed them further by giving them challenges to include three or four of the elements of poetry and to write about experiences they've had in their own lives. We even spent one day going outside and finding inspiration outside of the classroom. In the middle of the second week, students had to choose their favorite poem and then expand on it and re-write it. They had a conference with Leslie and had to defend their understanding and use of poetry terms. When they had perfected their poem, they had to edit, peer revise, and finally publish it in the class anthology. On the last day of the unit, we took a class vote (by ballot) and the top three poems were selected to enter to your site for the $50 prize contest. Although this wasn't a factor for all students, it did seem to add an element of motivation for a handful.
On the last day we also had a writers circle set up, and we gave students time to read through the entire anthology. As a final assessment, each student read their poem out loud – while two different students commented on what they liked about that poem. It was a thought-provoking, enlightening day. Students said things like: "Wow, I didn't know that about you" and "Whoa, that's sad! I didn't know you live far away from your mom" and "You don't have any friends? That's so sad!" and "I feel the same way about..." It was encouraging to hear students be able to express their innermost fears, experiences, and triumphs. Especially when you take into consideration the reluctance of most 9th graders to talk this way...They were rock stars!
It was clear that by the end of class, we all knew something new or even hidden about everyone in the room. Because of this, I think students felt more connected to each other, even if they weren't all aware of this on a conscious level. Overall, the unit was a total success! I would definitely teach this unit again, and I will, without a doubt, use Pongo Teen Writing to help introduce students to poetry and the healing effect it can have on a young person's – on anyone's – life.
Here are the three poems that our class voted to submit.
A Good Day?!
It used to be dark and grey,
But now something has to change.
It is going to be a good day.
It's a difference for today,
Tomorrow will not be the same.
It used to be dark and grey.
There is no reason to betray,
I do not want any of this fame.
It is going to be a good day.
I am trying to forget those days,
I am not the one to blame.
It used to be dark and grey.
I don't want my life on display,
I am just stopping some of this pain.
It is going to be a good day.
Let's try and change our lives today,
This life is not just a game.
It used to be dark and grey.
It is going to be a good day.
I come to school and start
I see the cops and I start
The principal came out and started
I was running so fast that I started
I was so scared that I stopped
I can do nothing to
But I still have to
Now look at me and tell me what you
A young boy coming out of the streets trying to be something you can't
This is me, and I'm not trying to be what you can't see.
The Old World
So you want to get to know me.
During my middle school year.
You want to know what I see.
So I'll tell you Crystal clear.
Imagine a tree lit on fire.
By one’s evil desire.
Imagine having a friend.
Who betrays you in the end.
Imagine getting your head slammed.
Into a street lain.
By that friend you damned.
Imagine the pain.
Imagine being isolated.
And always frustrated.
So you want to know me.
You want to see what I see.
Imagine losing hope in our society.
With all the poverty.
Imagine being overwhelmed in hate.
Up to Grade 8.
I covered up my anger with a disguise.
My mind was poisoned by the lies.
Your thoughts must be swirled.
But this was my world.
Imagine a stream of light shining through the darkness.
Cleansing my thoughts of all the rage.
Now I'm harmless.
Because of the light’s change.
Pongo Project JournalSharing stories of our work with teens
To Ms. Schicht’s class at Global Connections High School in SeaTac, Washington: Thank you for writing and sharing your poetry. I’ve published the three poems you sent me, at the end of this blog, and I look forward to reading your anthology!
Starcia Ague’s public story is inspiring in itself – the story of a young woman, now 23, who spent 5 ½ years in juvenile jail for a serious crime, but who worked her way to an education, a Governor’s pardon, and a research position at the University of Washington where she addresses juvenile justice issues. She earned the support of mentors and guides who helped her. She found God. And along the way, Starcia went public with her own history of growing up with addicted, sometimes homeless, drug-dealing parents. Her history includes abandonment by her parents and terrible abuse from an acquaintance of her mother.
But I want to add to Starcia’s story here. There are unrecognized qualities and strengths in people who are resilient after childhood abuse. I’m finding that these survivors…
* Make fiercely independent decisions in order to change and survive
* Engage in deep and private processes of emotional and intellectual growth
that empower their change
* Go it alone in significant ways, as they are forced to leave behind family and
old friends who are often destructive and rejecting
* Are the objects of prejudice for their past suffering and survival behaviors,
even from significant people in their new lives
* Are purposeful in their desire to help others
* Suffer always from the effects of the childhood abuse they once endured,
even as they survive and thrive
* Are happy with their lives
* Don’t always know how extraordinary they are
Here are a few instances from Starcia’s life…
Starcia’s pardon is a wonderful gift to her, but it’s also a mixed blessing. In a fiercely independent and purposeful decision, Starcia has chosen to make her history, and her crime, part of the public record. Anyone who searches her name on the internet can find out about her past. But Starcia has made this choice so that she can work for other youth. The pardon enables her to work on juvenile justice issues. Today she is advocating for legislation that would seal juvenile records.
While Starcia has had tremendous help from mentors along the way, there was a time of deep and private thought for her that facilitated change and growth. It began when a woman visited the church service at juvenile jail and told her own story of childhood abuse and recovery. Starcia saw a possibility for herself, and she spent time with her Bible then, reviewing her life, and seeking answers to difficult questions about meaning and forgiveness.
Like many survivors of childhood abuse, Starcia has had to make painful decisions – enduringly painful decisions – in relation to family and old friends. She would like to help people she cares about. At the same time Starcia is criticized and rejected by many of these people for the new life she has created. And some people from her previous life would not be safe for her. In important ways, Starcia has had to go it alone.
Many survivors of childhood abuse and its consequences make their own decisions about whether or not to share their histories with others. But with her openness and her work in the juvenile justice field, Starcia spends time with people every day who know about her past and her record. She understands that sometimes people are suspicious of her.
For survivors of terrible childhood traumas, there is a continuing ordeal into adulthood, in spite of their accomplishments and satisfactions. Starcia said to me that if there is one thing she could change about her life it wouldn’t be the time in jail or anything like that, it would be the continuing emotional and physical effects of childhood abuse.
So, coming back to Starcia’s public story, she is someone who suffered a terrible childhood, committed a crime in adolescence for which she served time, achieved an education, and attained meaningful work to help others like herself. But in addition she has shown an independent spirit and sense of purpose that fueled all her current accomplishments (with significant help from wonderful people along the way).
And, importantly, she has experienced a private world of ongoing challenge and growth that is extraordinary. She has my best wishes and admiration.
Maria Hoisington has begun a writing program, based on the Pongo model, in the girls juvenile detention center in San Salvador, El Salvador. Previously, Maria had participated with a group that offered legal workshops to the girls in the center in October 2010, but she wanted to reach the young women in a deeper and more personal way. Maria had never taught writing before. She and I met in November 2010 in Seattle, before she returned to San Salvador on a Fulbright scholarship, where she began The Cuentame Project with her colleague Jenna Knapp. In March, Maria and I had the following email exchange, in which she brought me up to date on her work. At the heart of the correspondence is a question, “What do we do with the desire we feel to do more for the girls?”
There are links to some poems and to Maria and Jenna's blog at the end of this article.
I hope this email finds you well and that the Seattle weather is treating you all right! I’ve wanted to write you for a few weeks to tell you about working in the girl’s detention center in San Salvador. We just wrapped up our fifth week working with the girls on writing poetry and it’s been an incredible, eye-opening experience. It took a month to get everything set up on an institutional level, getting permission from the center’s director, getting sufficient time approved in order to work with the girls, etc, but finally we were able to begin the first week of February. For the first two weeks, we were with the same group of about 5 girls, who were into the project and would be there waiting for us on the days they knew we were coming. [The detention center is very small, only about 40 girls who have been sentenced, and we just enter the recreational space and are free to snag whoever isn’t in class or a workshop.] After those first two weeks, we began striking up conversations with more girls who were curious about what we were doing, and grabbed a few of them to start writing. A few weren’t into the idea of poetry or writing, but wanted to continue talking to us, so agreed to give it a shot. As it turns out, the girls who were the most hesitant at first are the ones who have most loved the project and want to work with us every time we go.
It has been amazing hearing their stories, witnessing the way in which they open up about very painful details in their past, and seeing their excitement when they see their typed words. It’s been a constant learning curve for me and the other woman who goes with me, a fellow Fulbrighter who works on violence prevention for another NGO as well, figuring out how to best listen to, guide, and inspire the girls. The first time we work with a girl, we always start with the life story, talking about important events and people who have shaped them and their path. This takes so many different forms, from talking about their mothers, fathers, life on the street, first loves, loss, joy, grief… It is so interesting to see where different girls will take their story. The next time I’ll just begin by talking with them to see how their week was, and sometimes a topic arises from something they’ve said (like if they’ve had a hearing that week), or they’ll already have something they want to talk about, a memory, a relationship, etc. We’ve used a few of the writing prompts from Pongo, which have been great. We’ve written about emotions, questions, giving voice to different parts of the body, for example, which have been a lot of fun for us. There are also girls who will write during the week and have poems prepared on the day we go!
So many interesting and shocking themes have come out of their writing. Sexual and physical abuse, drug use, drug dealing, life on the street, teenage widows, witnessing or losing a loved one to a violent death, gang involvement, having many incarcerated family members and friends… Many of them are teen mothers. A shocking amount have lost boyfriends (or ex-boyfriends) to violent deaths, which has inspired me to explore further the phenomena of teenage widows, an issue I had never thought about in depth, but is quite obvious when you look at the demographic that is most being affected violence, teenage and young adult men. I approached a girl last week that I had never met before, who was sitting and braiding hair with a few girls near the sports court. The other girls talked more, and she was sitting there, shyly, not saying much, until I asked her if she wanted to talk and she nodded. Being with her, hearing her story, witnessing her pain and tears was one of the most intense experiences I think I’ve ever had in my life. She told me about being abandoned by her mother, living on the streets, becoming addicted to glue, being raped multiple times as a little girl, trying to make an honest living, eventually becoming involved with the gang, selling drugs, finding girls to carry illicit items into adult prisons or to sleep with the inmates, further sexual abuse, and being picked up for extortion. I felt her sadness so deeply that I didn’t even know what to do except be present for her and offer myself to listen and to care. She told me that she wanted to write songs and be able to sing them to other people someday, and asked if I thought that would be possible? I said that if she has the will and courage to share her story, that we as people have much to learn from her. I have never seen eyes as sad as hers, and if there is one thing I can offer to her it is the tools and encouragement to put her words on paper.
Multiple issues are also coming up through this work, and I realize that you are very busy, but any words of wisdom you could offer would be great. Obviously, this is very personal work, but I’m also finding that because it is such a small population we are working with, even if we do not work with certain girls that day, we always see them, talk, etc. There is NEVER enough time to check in with all the girls, to hear how their week was, to see how they’re feeling. I know that’s not my job, but I care, and I worry about that attachment. Something important that I talked about with you or read in Pongo materials is the idea not needing or depending on the youth we work with to fulfill OUR own emotional needs. This is very important, and I think about it a lot, but I think what I struggle with is wanting to be more for the girls than is possible/appropriate/safe/etc. I think it’s our human nature, to nurture, to save people, and sometimes it’s hard to listen to that rational explanation that yes, you are doing great work, you are being present to them and accompanying them in a very powerful process and hopefully making their lives better, but it is not your responsibility to be a parent or to save them. I suppose there are multiple questions that are coming up for me, but this one is the most important, so I’ll leave it at that. At the same time, I do focus on self-care, on keeping myself emotionally healthy, and being able to separate this work from the rest of my life and my own emotional needs.
This has turned into a very long email. I hope your work is going great, I really enjoy the email updates and reading the new poems you send out!
I will do my best to address the issue you raise -- about the desire to do more for the girls, when you are exposed to so much pain and sadness.
But first I'd like to say that you are doing wonderful, valuable, healing work. You have taken the leap, to dwell with the girls' sadness and to be strong for them to help them feel human again. You are doing a great job. I don't know how to describe the combination of admiration, respect, pleasure, and warmth I feel when I read your note except to say that I'm proud of you.
Here are some thoughts about your question, about the desire we feel to do more...
It's the most natural thing to feel this desire to do more. In doing this work you are combining heart and intelligence and competence. You feel the hurt, you see the need, and you know you are capable of making a difference.
On the other hand, you also understand that your ability to do more is limited by what is possible/appropriate/safe/etc. And this is true.
So this desire to do more has to be understood philosophically. This feeling won't completely go away, I think. (For me, though, it has lessened over time because Pongo's accomplishments have built over time and because support for Pongo has grown over time.)
One philosophical point is that there will always be a limit to what you can achieve. There are girls incarcerated in the next town, in the next country, in the future. There is a sadness here that is part of being human. We make mistakes, Our love isn't perfect, Our lives are short. At some level we have to embrace and accept life's limitations. Our ability to accept these limitations makes us stronger and makes our lives deeper. Our own writing can help us grow in this area, as can some religious disciplines. Acceptance doesn't mean we're sad every hour of every day, but sometimes.
Another point about feeling the desire to do more is that if you DID make the effort to do more it could actually work against the girls and you. When people have been terribly hurt, they often can't trust relationship, and they often have to run away from relationship. For these girls, most of their connections in the real world are reflections of the traumatic connections in their past. Their past lies in pieces, like fallen leaves that float in and out of their sight and grasp. What the girls need first is something other-worldly -- a solid sense of feeling cared about. All of the good you're doing now is made possible because the girls understand that you WON'T try to do too much in your worldly connection to them. They feel safe with you because of that. And they can let themselves feel that you care. The girls know that you can tolerate their sadness, and they have confidence that you can tolerate your own. Ultimately, what the girls need in order to heal is to know that you hold them in your heart. This allows them to hold you in their hearts. That is what makes all the difference.
There are some practical things you can do to manage this desire to do more, too. You are already doing the most important things, which include self-care, especially emotional self-care.
But another practical thing is to just keep doing the work, at whatever pace your life allows. Accomplishments will accumulate over time. Patience and perspective also are hard-earned but valuable philosophical traits.
I think it also helps to build a community outside the detention center that supports and values what you do. I suggest you start writing a newsletter about your work. Send it out to friends, build this circle over time. Articulate your mission, and advocate for your mission. In doing this you not only help the girls, but you will receive validation from others that is important for you.
Maria, you are facing all of the difficult challenges of this work. I am proud of you. These challenges include feelings that can't be changed, that can only be felt, adjusted to, and to some extent accepted. It's a growthful process that can be embraced. It's a hard but beautiful part of life.
Does what I'm saying make sense to you? Also, may I share your email in my blog, in particular as a program begun on the Pongo model?
With Warm Regard,
YES YES it makes sense! Thank you so much for your response, it gave me an incredible sense of peace. First of all, you can definitely share my email in your blog, and I am comfortable with the characterization as a project based on the Pongo model because the Pongo project is what really inspired me to start this work. I knew I wanted to do deeper work with the girls in detention, I knew I didn't want to just be doing group workshops on their rights and conflict resolution because what really drew my attention was learning about them as individuals and hearing the stories of their life journey. Then I was introduced to your work and it was such a perfect example of how to do that work, to value and give voice to their experiences and urge society to see them as people with all of their complexities and not to define them by their crime.
The suggestion to begin a newsletter is a very good one. When I read your email, I started thinking about all of the individuals that I have told about this work, here and in the states, and what great reactions and suggestions I've received from them, but also how so many people in my community (here, there, personal, professional) have a very superficial understanding of the project. What a wonderful opportunity to not only share my experiences and the girls' writing, but to educate, to talk about the criminalization of youth, to touch on the broader themes that arise from their writing. I talked to a young, male friend of mine who lives in a rural area in the mountains right after reading your email, and he said, YES, that's something I would love to read! So I've gotten started on my first bi-lingual newsletter...
Also, I really appreciate the philosophical analysis of this type of work and the feeling of wanting to do more for these girls, especially talking about how the trust and sense of safety is a product of the fact that I am completely removed from other realities in their life. They can trust and feel cared for without worrying about potential consequences or complications, and in that sense, it is an experience of true human connection. “I care about you as a person because you are too a person and deserve to be cared about.” There is something comforting in that simplicity that gave me a great sense of peace.
Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for saying you feel proud, those words and knowing that people are excited about this work gives me a lot of encouragement and energy to keep going and always work to make it better. I just had a discussion with a coworker about sustainability and about getting university students involved, and am just feeling reminded that this is good work and that there are many people want to get involved to make sure it continues. So thank you again for your very kind words.
Maria and Jenna have started to blog about their work, which they have named The Cuentame Project. (In informal Spanish, cuentame means “Tell Me.”) Please check it out! And here are some wonderful poems from the young women in El Salvador. The names are pseudonyms. Maria did the translations.
Later, I Returned to the Streets
If They Could Speak
by Richard Gold
A personal summary and organization of ideas on this issue. I am not a trained clinician, so some of my descriptive words may be inexact as terminology.
1. Abuse is an overwhelming experience that creates fragmented states of being for the child (and for the adult survivor of childhood abuse). A person may function very capably at times after abuse, but may also revert internally to being a child who is overwhelmed, which I’ll describe as a child in a state of terror. As opposed to the capable state, a person in the terror state feels trapped, unable to benefit from his or her own cognitive skills to reflect, problem solve, or gain perspective.
2. Very importantly, the fragmentation is a response to traumatic experiences that are often not remembered, not acknowledged, or not understood.
3. The fragmentation, in response to unremembered experiences, places a person inside a chaotic universe of powerful and unattributed emotions/conditions, such as anger, numbness, anxiety, and depression.
4. This fragmentation is a survival technique, the best a child can do to wall-off the terror of abuse. Sadly, the walled-off terror is also “preserved” in this way.
5. Because the different ways of being (for example, of capable functioning and of overwhelming terror) don’t really “know” one another, a person can flip back and forth between these states, sometimes for self-protection, in a way that limits understanding and makes healing difficult.
6. Abuse is more devastating for the child when the victim is younger, when the abuse occurs over a longer period of time, and when the abuser is in a close relationship with the victim.
7. A child is especially vulnerable to abuse when there is a destructive parental system (which is often the case). Instead of having parental bonds that provide a sense of wholeness, of comfort, and of being an acceptable person, the victim feels a particularly strong sense of personal failure and defectiveness after abuse.
8. This inner concept of defectiveness is an organizing principle for an abused child. It preserves the goodness of the parents in the child’s eyes and helps the child make sense of its world. It is a survival technique, but terribly painful.
9. The fragmentation and the sense of personal defectiveness reinforce one another.
10. There are biological factors in an abused child’s states of terror, in addition to emotional factors, that determine the child’s experience and reaction to trauma.
11. Beyond these circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defectiveness, there are other powerful factors within abuse that reinforce the traumatic conditions. Two such factors are blame and shame.
12. A child is blamed. It’s important to understand that abuse is not a “simple” hit or sex act. Abuse is coercive. The victim is blamed for the victimization. In the process, the abuser exerts control in ways that are torturous and terrifying.
13. A child feels ashamed. It’s important to understand that the failure of kindness and protection in the family is a profound wound to the child. The victim is deeply ashamed at this loss and carries the burden of feeling unlovable.
14. Beyond the circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defectiveness, that reinforce one another and are further reinforced by blame and shame, there are powerful factors within abusive family systems that reinforce trauma.
15. Here are some of the factors in abusive family systems that reinforce trauma. Within a family, the abuser may not only be dominant, but idealized. And everyone in the family may measure themselves by the abuser’s moods. It is a condition of abuse that victims identify with the aggressor, and will sometimes judge themselves and others through the eyes of the aggressor (which can be a source of guilt for the victim). Often there is an enforced isolation for the family, where the abuser passes judgment and controls outside contacts. This isolation limits the child victim’s opportunities for understanding and healing. Often in an abusive family there is a parent who is a passive enabler of the abuser, and this role is significant. The enabler makes it possible for the family to be a self-contained system. The enabler may support or justify the abuser. The enabler may allow or even encourage the child to serve as a target for abuse. The enabler is frequently suffering from his or her own history of abuse. Ultimately, the abused child may carry a responsibility to mollify the abusive parent and to protect the enabling parent. In this environment the abused child may also feel protective of siblings and pets, and may feel terrorized by, or implicated in, abuse directed there. In the end, the abused child may carry the huge burden of preserving the family as an ideal – and therefore may carry a huge burden of guilt for failing in that impossible task.
16. It is my observation that although the abuser sometimes wants an abused child to appear successful in superficial ways to the world outside the family, the abuser doesn’t really want the child to be emotionally accomplished. In addition to messages from the parent that the child deserves blame for family problems, there are also significant messages that the parent doesn’t want the child to be happy or to succeed as a person beyond the abusive parent’s limited capabilities. So the child feels guilt and failure for its successes, as well for its victimizations.
17. Beyond the family system’s own talents for submitting to the abuser and isolating itself, there are also societal factors that preserve the traumatic family system. Society is afraid and avoidant – ultimately in denial about abuse. The helplessness and terror of abuse creates feelings of vulnerability in its witnesses. As a result there is anger and a stigma that are part of society’s reaction to abuse, and this anger and stigma falls most heavily on the victim. (This anger and stigma may be witnessed in society’s failure to recognize mental health issues among the homeless and incarcerated.) Unfortunately, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for society to blame and repress, because of the victim’s own sense of confusion, feelings of failure, acting-out behaviors, and desire to protect the family. Also, the social system is set up so that once a family’s failures are identified, a family may be dispersed and destroyed. In this eventuality, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for the family to blame and repress. It is sometimes the victim who is isolated by the family. In this eventuality, in which a family is dispersed, the victim of abuse suffers particularly, because it has always been the victim’s goal to keep the family intact.
18. One powerful theme throughout circumstances of abuse is the theme of secrecy. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from itself. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from the abuser, from the enabler, etc. – and vice versa. There are secrets that the abusive family keeps from society. The abusive family sustains itself with falsehoods.
19. The victims of child abuse may suffer many problems in life, including forms of self-harm (such as cutting), eating disorders, intimacy difficulties, substance abuse. Particularly horrifying to friends and observers is that some victims have a recurring pattern of recreating childhood abuse by entering dangerous situations or abusive adult relationships.
20. The victims of child abuse may have notable areas of resilience, including being self-sacrificing and empathetic, with a strong desire to help others. They may have perfectionist qualities, intellectual strengths, and creative talents. Victims may have many extraordinary gifts that are the product of their extraordinary efforts to save their families and themselves. They may be driven by a strong sense of moral purpose.
21. In the world of the victim of child abuse, there is a very special role for creative writing as a tool for healing. The primary way to counteract fragmentation is to cognitively and symbolically integrate feeling and experience – in other words, to write openly and in a feeling way about personal experience. The sense of defectiveness, blame, and shame are all mitigated by personal writing because writing externalizes and objectifies experience, thus removing it from intensely self-critical internal processes. And then there is the fact that creative accomplishments can be publicly shared, which builds self-esteem, facilitates further communication, and alleviates isolation. Eventually the impact of abuse can be lessened by expressing oneself honestly.
When we experience great hurt, it’s in our human nature to blame ourselves, often.
And when we experience great hurt, it’s in our human nature to generate great emotion, often, that we can use in the cause of insight, connection, and purpose. This emotion is a tremendous strength.
And, as I witness this strength in so many Pongo writers who have experienced childhood traumas, I appreciate these young people, and I believe it’s important for all of us to appreciate them. They are showing us how strong we can all be.
With this journal, I am announcing the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize, a poem called “Strength” by a 16-year-old young woman whom I’ll call Evie (a pseudonym). Evie sent me three poems over the internet on Christmas day, using Pongo activities of I Am, Ten Reasons to Love Me, and You Don’t Me. In these poems Evie wrote about feeling uncared for and wretched, and she wrote about her need to cut herself. But she also wrote about the power of her words and dreams. I thanked her for these poems and expressed my reaction that they were about difficult feelings but also contained the voice of a sensitive, articulate, strong, and creative person. The next day Evie sent me her prize-winning poem, which is included below and is based on the Pongo activity Strength.
And after “Strength,” I have included another poem from Evie, one that she sent me a few days ago, called “3 thoughts in that one voice.” In this brief poem Evie imagines cutting, but then describes the decision not to cut, and finally shows the strangeness that fills her after making that decision.
So, I hope you’ll recognize and celebrate the strength in the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. Following Evie’s poems, there are links to three great poems by other writers that received Honorable Mention. Cheers!
by Evie, age 16
I can be as strong as concrete, a solid brick wall,
like the ones that I have build to surround me.
Ready to lock myself within the walls, protected, and unhurt.
I can be as strong as the ocean's waves,
that swallow me up whole.
Pay attention to my craving waves, the ones that come after you,
not giving time to breathe.
I will overcome this fear.
I can be strong in ways you don't expect.
I can be as strong as the stone heart that I carry on my sleeve.
Able to stay strong and stable,
through all the hurt that is thrown at me.
My strength can be gentle.
I can only be as strong as myself, my weakest link.
Ready to crack under all the pressure.
I can be strong and change the world.
And I will.
3 thoughts in that one voice
by Evie, age 16
the thought makes my skin tingle, my hands go numb, and my mind swim.
I can't control the hunger of the pain anymore.
while my mind and heart scream to stop and forget, my hand goes ahead thinking on its own, slicing and revealing my insides.
letting the red emerge from my flesh, hitting the floor, drop by drop.
the usual smile appears on my face. I don't know who I am anymore.
I reach for the steak knife, hiding in the nest of spoons.
the black handle is warm.
as I pull it free, the blade slices the air, dividing it into slivers.
I can see the shadow of my old self.
the girl I don't wanna be.
here stands a girl clutching a knife, with blood in the air, angry words piled in the corners, we are trained not to see this way of life.
the knife silently slithers its way back into the block with only a whisper.
and for one moment,
we are not failed tests, or broken hearts, or liars.
we are crayons and lunch boxes, and swinging so high our sneakers punch holes in the sky.
for one breath, everything is better.
then it all melts away.
Honorable Mention, January 2011
Letter After a Time
Captured in Hiding
Lessons of Courage and Fear
It would be easy to celebrate Maggie as the 25-year-old young professional she is, a stunning young woman with long brown hair, dedicated to her job, about to defend her Masters thesis, proud of her apartment and independent life.
(“Maggie” is a pseudonym, and some of the facts in this story have been changed to protect her anonymity.)
But I would like to celebrate the whole Maggie, and bring Maggie’s accomplished life together with her other life, the second life that she always kept secret from “good” people. Maggie would like that, too.
Maggie’s earliest memories, to age 7, are of being sexually abused by a brother who was 13 years older. After her parents’ divorce, she was neglected by a deeply troubled mother who kept a squalid house, left rotting food sitting out for Maggie (if she fed her at all), and openly engaged in sexual adventures. Then when Maggie objected to her mother’s behavior, she was kicked out of her house at 14 and afterward lived under bridges through adolescence, while she was alcoholic, anorexic, drug-addicted, and battered. She wintered in the apartment of a murderous and philandering boyfriend who was 11 years older.
Yet Maggie always went to school and always earned A’s. Her intellectual effort gave her purpose and self-esteem. Teachers were her nurturers. And Maggie measured her mental health by her ability to have at least five people in her life who didn’t know about her suffering.
And Maggie always sustained herself with an appreciation for the things in this world that are enduringly beautiful, like the flowing river beneath the bridge where she slept.
Ultimately, there were several events that helped Maggie make a significant change in her life at age 19. An intervention was scheduled at Maggie’s apartment to help her with her coke addiction, and no one showed up (not even the flighty friend who had arranged the intervention), except for Maggie’s abusive brother. Maggie’s abuser broke down that evening, beat himself bloody in a hysteria of guilt, and for the first time acknowledged what he had done. For the first time, Maggie could truly accept the reality of her hurt and feel sane.
About this time, at a vulnerable moment for Maggie, she was violently raped. Then she moved in with her father, who loved her, fed her, played cards with her, and made sure that she was always warm. Maggie completed college at this time, while she battled addiction and eating disorders.
Today, Maggie knows the legacy of her life. She is convinced that she will never have children, for example. But Maggie also doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or think she is a sad person. In her intellectual way, she describes human emotions as existing along a continuum from -10 to 10. The worst pain, the -10, is felt equally by everyone. But if life pushes you, if you feel your -10 from child abuse, for example, then nothing you experience will ever be that bad again.
And when life pushes you, when you feel a -10 from child abuse, for example, then the joy that you feel, the +10, is correspondingly greater. Maggie thinks that when she runs on the beach with her dog that no one is happier than she…
I began by describing Maggie’s accomplished life today, as an independent working woman and student. But isn’t the whole Maggie, to include the life in which she suffered, an even more remarkable person?
In a future article about Maggie, I’d like to discuss the nature and consequences of secrecy in her life.
Two of Maggie’s poems are enclosed below: “Drugs” from the time her mother kicked her out when Maggie was 14, and “Petals on the Floor” from the time her brother admitted his guilt when Maggie was 19.
Maggie, age 14
Because you never taught me that I was supposed to love myself.
Because you are jealous of me, your child, for every accomplishment I’ve fought for.
Because I want to show you that I am as low as you are. Then maybe we’d have something to talk about.
Because you abuse me with no shame.
Because self-mutilation has been glorified so many times by your lips. It is the only thing worthy of your attention.
Because you never expected any more of me.
Because I am definitely your child.
Because the people that you care about are the people that are more f***ed up than you.
Because I don’t know how to heal the pain you bestowed upon me.
Because you never wanted me to amount to more than you are.
Because I am confused and young and you offer me no guidance.
Because you taught me how to.
Because I see how you don’t have to care about anything while you’re high.
Because I want to be just like you, mother—painless, soulless.
Because maybe hurting myself will hurt you too.
Because this is the way you planned it.
Because if I hit rock bottom, I don’t have to fall in panic anymore.
Because I want you to love me.
Petals On the Floor
Maggie, age 19
Tearing each petal from its origin
…He loves me, he loves me not…
shooting pain, doubt, a hitchhiker
from the back of my eyes, down.
destination: The Achilles Tendon
Anxious now. No sleep, only to feel
within my once shallow blue waters,
an unclean, terrifying depth. I sink in.
fear between his touch, my skin.
Hurt is warm, slow, blazing red.
the poisoned berry in starvation
and, I, the starving child. the juice drips
dangerously, anxiously, slowly from my lip
I’m walking now,
my left eye a clouded mirror, my right
an antiquated magnifying glass
the path, undoubtedly, unclear
He holds me then, dripping with false apology
his desperation, his relief, onto me
the weight of his burden, his hate.
…He hates me, he hates me not…
As I pull the last petal, hate
and love forgotten. I think.
this stem in my hand, naked, humiliated
the only fact undoubted:
this wildflower is in pieces on the floor.
When I planned my last writing workshop at Mission Creek Corrections Center, it was just before Thanksgiving, and I was feeling particularly badly for the women. With budget cutbacks the facility is losing its only two recreation staff. Meanwhile the population has doubled to around 300 women. Holidays are always a difficult time.
As many of you understand, the lives of incarcerated women have included great suffering, including childhood sexual abuse and domestic battering, including drug addiction, including regrets about having let down their children.
But I planned a writing workshop on love, especially on the complicated nature of love. The poems I brought to discuss included Bessie Smith lyrics, “Dirty No Gooder Blues.” We did the Pongo writing activity “Love, Sometimes” (created by Pongo leader Ann Teplick).
In particular, I brought a poem by Hafiz called “With That Moon Language.” In this poem Hafiz says that we’re all walking around making a silent appeal to “Love me,” afraid to say the words aloud because people might think we’re weird. But ultimately we’re left with a choice. We can walk out today and join the throng… Or we can walk out and say the words that everyone is so desperately longing to hear.
The poets and I had a good discussion and a good time in our workshop. As usual the women asked me to distribute my backup writing activities as homework. Those of you who have followed Pongo know that I have a high regard for the emotional depth of people who have led difficult lives. At the end of the session, I said to everyone, “Spread the love!”
I packed up my materials and was escorted out of the prison. Just before leaving I walked through a common area where five women were huddled around a table. One woman was sprawled across the table top to hear better. The staff person made a comment to the sprawler, and the women looked up.
It turned out the woman at the center of the group had been in my workshop. She saw me, flashed a huge smile, and said, “I’m reading them my poetry!” Then everyone smiled.
Spread the love!
At a banquet last Thursday at the Westin Hotel in Seattle, I was named a Microsoft Integral Fellow. Pongo will receive a $25K financial award and has the promise of significant support from the Microsoft Alumni Foundation and from my fellow Microsoft alumni in the coming year. The evening could not have been more happy and humbling for me. Alumni committee members not only expressed their personal appreciation for Pongo, but they conveyed the appreciation of Tom Brokaw and the other judges. Bill and Melinda Gates presented me with a medal. In accepting the award I had the chance to talk to 450 people about the difficult lives of Pongo teens, and could also explain how out of this darkness there can be triumph and joy. As I was leaving at the end of the night, one Microsoft person called out, "We're proud of you." My former colleagues are great!
One of the first benefits I've received from the Microsoft Alumni Foundation is that a very artful video was made about Pongo, set in juvenile detention. Please check it out (only two minutes!). Here's the link
It was an honor to stand with my fellow award nominees, finalists, and recipients. My remarks at the banquet are enclosed, below...
Remarks to the Microsoft Alumni Association
November 18, 2010
I’d like to thank the Microsoft Alumni Foundation for naming me a Microsoft Integral Fellow. And I’d like to express my appreciation to Bill and Melinda Gates and to the many of you in this audience who are already doing so much to change our world. Thank you. I am humbled to be with you tonight.
I’d like to share a thought with those of you who will soon be entering the world of nonprofits and making your own contributions – My thought is that out of darkness can come triumph and joy.
In the case of the Pongo youth, they have terrible challenges that isolate them. Traumas at an early age can overwhelm young people and leave them fragmented and confused. Trying to understand your life under these circumstances is like trying to look into your own eyes without a mirror. And the abuse these youth suffer is not just a hit, it is coercive. The victims are blamed for their victimization. For children who don’t receive the love they need, they feel a deep burden of shame. And then there is the social stigma that surrounds trauma and tragedy.
But when Pongo authors write about their feelings, and someone is listening, they are changed. They make a cognitive shift, and come to understand that “This is who I am” and “I am not alone.” It is a wonderful moment to share. The other Pongo volunteers and I know that we receive more than we give in this work.
So to those of you who are about to make your efforts to change the world, I’m happy for the opportunities you’ll have to bring triumph and joy out of darkness. You have my best wishes! Please contact me if you’d like my support.
With today’s journal, I’d like to announce the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. In “Watching Her” you’ll hear the voice of a strong young woman. It makes me think about the resilience that we see all the time through our Pongo work.
The experiences of abused and neglected youth are terrible when you read about them in the teens’ Pongo poetry, but I always encourage readers to think beyond the sad content - to celebrate the resilience it takes to write and heal. Writing exposes a wound to light and air. After they write, the Pongo teens are proud, feel capable, and gain control in their lives. Instead of being merely reactive to pain, a person who writes can integrate that painful experience into a multi-faceted and cognizant personality. There is still sadness, and sometimes struggle, but a person’s losses can be mourned and a future envisioned.
And complementing the role of writing itself is the ability to be heard, which breaks down the walls of isolation. At Pongo we sit with our authors and listen to their stories as an important part of what we do. An awful reality of abuse and neglect is that the hurt often contains terror, blame, coercion, control, guilt, and helplessness. Abuse and neglect are a pointed injury to a person’s soul. And abuse and neglect throw their victims into terrible isolation. Yet we can help people to heal when we’re strong enough to listen to their stories and to accompany them out of their solitude.
So please read “Watching Her” and watch the author, too. Celebrate the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. Following the winning poem, there are links to three great poems that received Honorable Mention. Cheers!
by a young woman, age 16
i've watched my mother all of my life
i watched her let my father beat her till her skull broke open and bled across the hardwood floor
i watched her recover from that incident, return to my father, and become pregnant with yet another child whom she'd always ignore
i watched her struggle in chaos and self punishment while she filled her 135lb body with vodka, beer, and rum
i watched her get so angry at my older sister that she'd beat her till her fragile 98lb body was forced to become numb
i watched my mother live the life of an addict, an abuser, and a manipulator
i watched her try and hide these things that she'd always reveal until the day i walked down the street and watched her do something she couldn't conceal
i watched my mother do these things till the day she had successfully pushed everything, including her children, out of her life
i watched her unconsciously toss and turn in a dirty sleeping bag on the rainy seattle sidewalk of lake city way
yes, i watched my mother all of my life
but sixteen years into watching i choose to no longer watch her strife
Honorable Mention, October 2010
My Best Friend Is in Love
Pongo Friends, I have some wonderful news! I have been selected as a finalist for the 2010 Integral Fellows Awards Program of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation. I am posting the press release below and including links to the impressive programs of the other four finalists...
Microsoft Alumni Foundation announces 2010 Integral Fellows Awards Program Finalists
Microsoft Alumni give back with talent and resources around the world
BELLEVUE, Washington – September 21, 2010 - The Microsoft Alumni Foundation announced today the five finalists for the 2010 Integral Fellows Awards Program. A cornerstone of the Foundation, the Integral Fellows Awards Program recognizes Microsoft alumni who have dedicated their lives to creating something extraordinary to help address challenges around the world. The five finalists were selected from nominations put forward from among over 150 nonprofit organizations started by Microsoft alumni, and the thousands of alumni doing philanthropic work globally.
Award winners will be recognized by Bill and Melinda Gates at the Microsoft Alumni Foundation Celebration on November 18, 2010 in Seattle. The winners will each receive a $25,000 unrestricted grant for their nonprofit organization, as well as support from their fellow alumni to help continue in their efforts to leverage resources and scale solutions for their initiatives.
The five finalists are:
- Peter Bladin, Grameen Foundation http://www.grameenfoundation.org/
- Richard Gold, Pongo Publishing, Inc. www.pongoteenwriting.org
- Gary Malkasian, Foster Care Justice Alliance http://www.fosterjustice.com/
- Cliff Schmidt, Literacy Bridge http://www.literacybridge.org/
- Fank Schott, NetHope http://www.nethope.org/
The Microsoft Alumni Foundation brings together Microsoft alumni to positively affect the world’s challenges. “We’ve been fortunate to play a significant part in the information revolution. Now we have a chance to change the world in a different way. Microsoft alumni are making it happen every day in our local communities and around the world,” said Jeff Raikes, chairman of the board of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation. "Some very unique individuals were nominated by their peers as Integral Fellows for their work deeply rooted in service and making a difference in people’s everyday lives. Today, I am honored to announce these five finalists. On November 18th, Bill and Melinda Gates and over 400 fellow Microsoft alumni will gather to announce the final winners and celebrate all the nominees."
The nonprofit organizations being recognized include:
- Grameen Foundation - helps the world’s poorest, especially women, improve their lives and escape poverty through access to information, capital and viable business opportunities using microfinance and technology.
- Pongo Publishing - helps abused and neglected youth to heal by writing poetry, with Pongo Teen Writing projects in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals.
- Foster Care Justice Alliance – defending the rights of children in out-of-home care, by advocating for changes in society and law, and by providing support to foster kids, foster families and relative caregivers.
- Literacy Bridge – connects poor, rural communities with the vital knowledge they need to improve their lives by providing the world’s most affordable and durable audio device, designed specifically for people who cannot read and who live without electricity.
- NetHope - a collaboration of 30+ international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that facilitates public-private partnerships with major technology companies, foundations and governments, enabling NGOs to better leverage their technology investments to improve the delivery of aid in the developing world.
“The Foundation is honored to have such a great panel of esteemed judges working closely with us to recognize Microsoft alumni and their nonprofit organizations,” said Sharon Maghie, secretary of the board of directors, and chair of the Integral Fellows Committee. The panel of judges includes:
- Tom Brokaw, journalist and author
- Bill Drayton, chair and CEO, Ashoka
- William H. Gates Sr., co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Pierre Omidyar, founding partner, Omidyar Network and founder and chairman, eBay Inc.
- Judith Rodin, president, Rockefeller Foundation
- Thomas J. Tierney, chairman and co-founder, Bridgespan Group
Rigorous evaluation of the finalists included achievements that embody the values of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation, which are: innovation; entrepreneurship; effectiveness; collaboration and integrity. Additional criteria in selecting the winners included: the ability to create something extraordinary out of limited resources; selflessness; passion; smarts; need; and, scalability.
About the Foundation: The Microsoft Alumni Foundation was established to catalyze the collective power of the Microsoft alumni family and leverage our resources on innovative, scalable and transformative solutions to our world’s challenges. Launched in 2007, the Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public nonprofit organization with its worldwide headquarters based in Bellevue, Washington, USA. Board members include: Jeff Raikes (chair); Chuck Hirsch (president); Scott Oki (co-founder and vice president); Paul Shoemaker (treasurer); Tony Audino (co-founder); Sharon Maghie (co-founder and secretary) and Brad Smith (Microsoft representative).
Note to editors: If you are interested in viewing additional information on the Microsoft Alumni Foundation, please visit http://www.microsoftalumni.org/.
For additional assistance please contact:
Pamela Portin, Pamela Portin Consulting, LLC.
Mobile: 206-484-2644 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org