Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jul 08
Riding in My Own Canoe to Find a Dream
by Shaun McMichael

[Shaun is a former Pongo writing mentor who now heads "The Zine Project" for street youth, a program of Catholic Community Services in Seattle. This blog is an excerpt from an article in which Shaun describes the challenges and methods of teaching writing to homeless teens, especially when many are struggling with deep distress and mental illness. The names, genders, and physical descriptions of "Thomas" and the other young people in Shaun's article have been changed. Learn more about Shaun's methods by reading his ENTIRE ARTICLE elsewhere on the Pongo site.]

When Thomas entered my program, The Zine Project for street youth, he was in the throes of schizophrenia—an illness that was quite new and disturbing to him. He was slightly built, with olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Thomas would arrive to work most days an hour late, burst through the door in a scramble, demanding to know if he smelled. And asking me to look out the window to make sure no one was following him.

By the time I convinced him he was safe, he would express the following concerns: that somewhere in the world there was a famine, that his family was in danger, that he was in danger from his family, and that people were circulating indecent photos of him on the web.

He was alternately suspicious and infatuated with his peers, searching feverishly for commonality and even fabricating connections at times to cope with his loneliness.

Needless to say, Thomas missed a lot of work. He was hospitalized for several weeks during the project; but because of his intrinsic interest in writing and his faithfulness communicating with me on the phone, I kept him in the program, telling him I could give him make-up hours for any writing or artwork he did in the hospital. 

The day he was discharged, he dropped off a stack of unorganized scribbles—all on varying sizes of papers (legal, letter, note-card, post-it, etc.), intermingled with doodles. I took on the Sisyphean task of reading the writings and discovered a terse litany characterized by accusation and confusion.

I talked with a mental health therapist at our center. She acknowledged that Thomas might like writing on his own in this way, but doubted that it was helpful for him. 

“He’ll just keep spiraling in his head like this,” she told me.

The next day when Thomas came in to see what I thought, he was nervous—smelling his nails and tearing at his frayed jeans. 

My program sets up the goal that each youth form a collection of work, a collection they’re proud of, but also one that can be shared—with friends, therapists, family, and the wider community. Thomas, I think, realized that the writing he produced on his own wouldn’t work for this medium. 

He expressed this to me, “I think my writing is too… personal.”

I agreed.

I then told Thomas that I had a trick up my sleeve that could help him.

This trick was Pongo’s Dictation Method. 

Thomas agreed to try. 

I sat down at the computer, Thomas sat next to me. I wanted to start with something light—something away from family issues, famines, and psych wards. 

I’d noticed that he often doodled canoes in the margins of his writings. Sensing potential for a symbol, I asked him what canoes meant to him.

“People might kill me if they knew,” he said.

“Thomas, that sounds like a paranoid thought to me,” I replied, frankly.

“It’s not. People might kill me.”

“They’re not going to kill you, Thomas. That’s not true,” I said. It felt good telling him that. By doing so I wasn’t lording some universal truth over him. I was assuring him, inviting him, and freeing him. At least for a moment.


“What do canoes make you think of?”

They make me think of a nursery rhyme. You know, like life is but a dream,” he replied.

I started typing. “What else do you think of?”

“It makes me think of teamwork. I’m not necessarily going to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team. It’s like I’m riding my own canoe along with other people riding theirs on the same body of water.”

I continued asking questions. I wanted to know what the water was like (calm or tumultuous?); what it was like paddling alongside the others. Thomas answered my questions, elaborating in his own voice and discovering his own images. My fingers ran across the keys, capturing it all with the same gusto I would have used if the ghost of Frost or Cummings were speaking.

“We’re paddling so we can get across…” he said.

“To where?” I asked.

“To a home… Or. Uh, another country,” he paused.

“How can we finish this?” I asked, sensing we were near a conclusion. I called Thomas’ attention to the first line about how “life is but a dream” and pointed out that many times poets like to loop back to their starting place as a way of tying things together.

"Or a dream!” Thomas said and the poem was finished.

Donald Hall says that when a poem arrives at its proper close, you can hear it as clearly as a latch closing. Thomas and I found that end by working together—something not all poets experience.

by "Thomas"

Makes me think of a nursery rhyme.
Life is but a dream.

It makes me think of teamwork.
I don’t have to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team.
I’m riding my own canoe
along with other people riding theirs
On the same body of water,
A lake.
It may seem competitive, but
What we’re really trying to do is just move along and just do.

The lake can be like a river because
We always have to make quick decisions
Because the lake might have tide pools or be wavy
And rocky.

We see people struggling,
to survive riding their canoes.
People paddling too slow, going the wrong ways. We might think
Someone’s going too slow,
but they’re just taking their time
Or going as fast as they can.

Other times, we see people tipping,
And we make sure they don’t drown.
Sometimes people need to be allies of the others
Riding the canoes.
So it won’t ever have to be up to one person
To be the hero of the person drowning.
So we can make it across
To the other side of the lake.
So we can find a home,
Another country,
Or a dream.

Thomas developed this canoe picture into a metaphor for an ideal community—one where the members helped each other, and accepted individual needs and struggles. A dream, yes. A source of inspiration—yes, as well.