Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jul 03
Safety in the Stranger: Episodic Epiphanies in Pongo

 by Shaun McMichael

When I talk to people about the work that Pongo does, people wonder how we’re able to get kids to open up to us. We’re total strangers and the kids have immense trust issues as a result of their trauma. Oh yeah, and we only have an hour. We might only write with a kid once. But youth in institutionalized circumstances feel isolated and welcome connection of any kind. We present ourselves as safe adults who ask only for honesty. A third ingredient makes the mix magic: anonymity.  

When I was writing with Pongo back in 2008-2010 at Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), most youth received me with relief. I was a safe stranger with whom they’d write a poem or two. I would know only what they felt comfortable me knowing and we wouldn’t have to share the burden of the daily ups and downs inherent in the treatment process.

This was a relief for me as well. During this time, I was working at another treatment center (Seattle Children’s Home, McGraw Inpatient) as a Residential Counselor (RC) with youth having very similar issues. The experience of going from staff person to poetry mentor was dizzying. As a staff person, I had to provide structure in the form of rules and routines, rewards and consequences. Not surprisingly, as most of them had come from chaotic environments, conflicts arose as youth reacted against structure.  As a Pongo mentor, however, I didn’t have to enforce rules or routine. In fact, CSTC kids were given the option to write with Pongo as a part of their Language Arts class.  

In my case, Pongo was a literary escape for both youth and mentor. And the interactions I had with each youth gave me insight into their condition. These insights clarified my day job at McGraw and are still helping me clarify my work with youth.

Many youth wrote about the arc of their treatment experience. Such was the case with Minnie—a youth with a round face, Chesire cat colored stockings and beaded bracelets of neon green. She wrote the following—much of it without prompting.


I don’t like them. They lie to me.
They told me I was going home
And I’m not. They just make me mad.
They force me to do stuff.
Everything’s against my will.
If it was my choice, I wouldn’t be here.

I would be home and living with my home again.
Things were okay at first
but then they got really bad
And I overdosed.

At home, I had freedom. A life.
I was getting along with my mom
and saw what I had to live for.
Not so much anymore. It’s this place.
They’ve taken away my freedom.

I have to control myself more.
I have to handle my urges. It’s going to be hard.
I’ve been acting out my whole life.
It’s a contradiction, it’s aggravating
It’s depressing. It’s the pathway back home.

The poem starts with anger and suspicion towards the professionals treating her. Rather than challenge Minnie, I just acknowledged this feeling of frustration.

The poem becomes confessional (‘I overdosed’, ‘I’ve been acting out my whole life’). Many of the poems contained confessions. Often in Pongo, I felt more priest than poet.

Minnie’s poem goes on to acknowledge the inner struggle she faces (‘I have to handle my urges’) and gives an appraisal of the future (‘it’s going to be hard’). The final lines show Minnie’s ambivalence that seems to be moving towards acceptance of treatment.  

Another writer, Hailey, gives another perspective:

I’ve been here a year
And it’s getting a lot easier for me.
When I first came here,
I didn’t see
that people were just trying
To help me.
I didn’t care what people thought.
I was more focused on hurting myself
And hurting others.
But now, I try and be gentle
With everybody and give
Them all chances.

In an even more overt way, Hailey traces the course of her therapy. She goes from fighting staff and hurting herself to making the inner decision of allowing others to help her.

It was a course I was becoming more and more familiar with. During my time as an RC, I would watch youth come in kicking and screaming—enraged by their treatment assignment which seemed too akin to incarceration for comfort. But with time and consistent nurturing, I’d watch the youth make a tentative alliance with us. This would turn into a bond in which healing could occur.

It’s a course that youth like Hailey and Minnie may have to undergo several more times throughout their lives. As my work and study of mental illness has conveyed to me, mental illness is not a linear path to health, but a cycle—the swings of which we can only hope become less severe as sufferers learn to trust themselves and providers’ attempt to care for them.

Pongo has a place in this process for both youth and staff. The episodic nature of the writing encounter gives youth a kind of sounding board (or confessional booth) in which they can vent their understandable frustrations with the cyclical nature of illness and imperfect providers. But it also allows staff like myself a chance to see the individual apart from the clinical impetus for improvement. Youth are angry, wise, confused, brilliant, powerful and extremely vulnerable. These are facts I found myself forgetting in the conflict ridden shifts at McGraw, where youth were more reluctant to be so directly honest with me, the staff member to whom they were accountable. I remember being at McGraw and thirsting for my weekly CSTC visit so I could once again dialogue with youth without the power dynamic.

Ted was an angry kid at CSTC. He was displaying his rage in confusing and hurtful ways. He was small in stature with heavy cheeks, freckles, spiky hair and a baffled innocence to his hazel eyes, as if continually surprised at the reality his daily life brought him. When he sat down to write with me, I suggested a fill-in-the-blank activity I’d created to ‘jump start his creative flow’ as we say in Pongo lingo. He used the prompts to write the following:

If my fist could speak it would say let’s hit him.
If it’s a girl, don’t. If it’s a guy, go get him
Because he was being mean. It makes me feel bad.
It reminds me of throwing rocks at my mom
And cops got called
And it sounded of dreadful sorrow.

If my tightened jaw could open, it would say
‘F- you, I’m sensitive
About everything—
My mom
And my family.’

If my eyes could speak, they would say,
‘I don’t want to see that. I shouldn’t have done that.’
Because my eyes are connected to my brain
And my brain is connected to my choices.

If my pounding heart could speak,
It would say ‘I’m beating too fast.
I’m going to have a heart attack.’

If my fist could ask you a question, it would ask
‘Why did I do that?’

If my jaw could open, it would ask you
‘Why am I doing this?’ and ‘Why are you pissing me off’
And ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’ (If I didn’t).

If my eyes could speak, they would ask
‘Why do I have to see this stuff?’

If my pounding heart could speak, it would say
‘Could you please slow down?’

With each conditional anaphora, the boy is interpreting, maybe for the first time, the messages that are behind his anger. His sensitivity comes out in this moment—an oasis of thought in a young life characterized by the act-react binary. Through writing he’s able to reflect rather than react.

As a poetry mentor, the safe stranger, I was able to forget about the reward-consequence continuum and simply honor this boy’s legitimate, if misplaced, anger. The posture of holding the youth’s anger became a useful one for my work at McGraw and the work that was to come.

In addition to holding youth’s anger, the Pongo process provided an opportunity to hold each youth’s humanity—wherever they were in their therapy. This is most true in a poem I wrote with Alley. When I met Alley she was in CSTC’s Close Attention Program (CAP)—a self-contained unit for the most disturbed and self-destructive youth in Washington State. Youth in this program had often been too difficult for other treatment programs—including McGraw—to handle. Whatever Alley had been through, by the time I met her she was emaciated and pale. Her blue eyes shown with a fierceness offset by her quiet smile. Like most of them, when we sat down to write, I sensed she was glad I didn’t know the whole story. It might have gotten in the way of her telling me this:

I am human.
I have values and I have choices.
It doesn’t mean
That I make all the right choices all the time
Or that I don’t hurt other people’s feelings.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have character and I have imagination.
It doesn’t mean
That I don’t have bad or hurtful thoughts
And it doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt people.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have love and I have compassion.
It doesn’t mean
that I’m not ever rude to people
or even my loved ones.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have resilience and strength in me.
It doesn’t mean
that I don’t ever hurt or feel alone.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have patience and I have time
but it doesn’t mean I don’t ever
get angry or feel like giving up at times.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

And that’s okay. I don’t expect perfection.
I just expect acceptance of me
from myself and others.

The coordinating conjunctions kick off the couplets that re-assert Alley’s tempered view of herself. The line “I have resilience and strength in me” is also incredible. She wrote this surrounded by thick panes of Plexiglas scuffed by fists, decade old furniture bolted to the floor, and dented walls with faded, baby blue paint lending to the low-stim. feel of contained crises. She wrote this far from family or home and she wrote it with an uncertain future. The presence of the word ‘resilient’ also shows that some of the language Alley was receiving in therapy was slowly osmosing, becoming her own language. Yet if I had been a staff member she might not have wanted to admit that: it would have felt too much like giving in. Being a staff member by day, I knew that someone like Alley was probably very difficult to work with. But as a poetry mentor, I had the discrete privilege of admiring her words, validating her feelings and recording them for her to remember in the times ahead.

This incidental meeting of two strangers was restorative to both our beliefs in humanity. It allowed us both to continue on our separate roads: hers to heal, mine to help heal.

After writing with the youth at CSTC, we Pongo mentors would drive back to Seattle. Along the I-5 that year, I remember WSDOT was building a new overpass just south of Tacoma. At the time of our commute, only one section had been completed. A narrow concrete base held the isolated slab of highway up in sky. It looked like a concrete bridge to nowhere, its connection to the whole unseen, the plan of the builder unclear.

Each session writing with a kid was like this sectional: impossible to tell how the concrete units of expression that are poems would connect into a narrative. We could only hope that the parts we were helping the youth construct would eventually cohere.

But that’s the great part about poems. They aren’t stories, but incidents of expression and compassion. And these reflective moments in the youths’ lives might never take on a narrative form. But perhaps they might expand into an anthology of articulation. Words, we believe, are proofs against despair. Expression is hope.  

Shaun McMichael was a Pongo Poetry mentor from 2007-2010. Since, he’s taught creative writing to homeless youth at The Zine Project and educated youth with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) at Seattle Public Schools. Currently, he teaches ESL to immigrants and refugees at Goodwill’s Job Training and Education Center (JTE). He’s pursuing his Masters in Teaching at SPU. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Litro, Petrichor Machine, The Milo Review, Existere, Carrie Pidgeon and others.