Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Oct 30
What Makes You, You

What Makes You You—Turning to Self-Acceptance through Poetry

by Shaun McMichael

The collection of poems submitted to Pongo from January to March were full of the intense emotions of authors dealing with themselves—sometimes self-destructively. This is not an uncommon problem. Whenever we undergo traumatic experiences, we often convert the experience into negative feelings towards ourselves.  This is done perhaps to try to regain some sense of control. But instead of hurting themselves, these authors choose a healthy form of control by writing. There’s much we can learn from their words.

One example is found in our winner for the quarter:

by a young woman, age 18

Did any of them ever hear?
Did they hear the screams from the girl thrown against the porcelain sink?
Did they see her run down the stairs,
barefoot and dancing around the puddles
in nothing but a tank top and jeans?
the ones without rips in the knees, I think…
Did they hear her scream at windowpanes
or beat her heel against the door frame?

Well, they must have seen her when the Law came.
The vase smashed across the front porch,
the metal screen whinnying in the cool Washington breeze
like a dehydrated horse
the yells for hair to be released
the harsh slap of those wicked palms
the forced stomping of the pair of aggravated feet.

Did they see?
Did they see her leave in cuffs
until authority called the bluffs?
See her returned to the steps,
march up like a soldier and tell them it was just ‘family stuff’
and second guess when they left?
Do they know she tried to fight
or that the secrets kept
ruined her life?
Do they know she’s even gone,
that no one cared to help the broken one
until she began to lose control?
Until the yells became bellows
and she shook when she needed to hit?

But they never have.
They never did believe the broken kid.

Do they know she told the truth
and it never was the same?
That the situation solved nothing
and she nearly went insane.
That they said if she was better,
if she would just keep secrets,
then she wouldn’t be to blame.
I know neighbors saw me
but I was just another damaged face
without a solid name.

The poem—a series of rhetorical questions—uncovers a core problem many of us experience: the feeling of not being heard, seen or aided by our families, neighbors and communities. Potential Good Samaritans become bystanders who suggest the author keep silent for the sake of appearances. As the author alludes to, many of their later behaviors stem from this frustration of injustice and repression. “They never did believe the broken kid”; the line evokes both empathy and understanding for those of us who do things that are hard to understand. There’s always a reason and this poet chronicles theirs with incredible honesty.

Our first honorable mention also deals with intense emotions around the self and their circumstances:

by a young woman, age 14

Anger is a way for you to blame what you did wrong on someone else.
Anger is a beast that devours you, head first and heart last.
Anger is a waterfall of molten rock, and you have no way to stop it.

Angry because I have no clue how to fix the problems everyone else has with me.
Angry because no one else cares enough to care, or at least doesn’t show it.
Angry because I just don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to, anyway.

Maybe anger won’t always rule my life, my head.
Maybe there is a new day for me when I won’t want to scream.
Maybe anger is here to help us learn, help us change.

But I don’t know how to fix it,
I don’t know how to stop it,
I don’t know what to do,
And I have no idea how.

This author articulates the utter confusion and helplessness they feel in response to their intense emotions. Though the writer may say they’re not sure what to do to cope with their emotions, they’ve found one thing to do: write. And by doing so, they teach us how we too might handle the ineffable storm of feelings inside us.


In their writing, authors have important messages about how to deal with their ambivalence toward who they are. Our last two honorable mentions for the January-March 2015 quarter provide nice examples.

by a young woman, age 13

When I was really little, I ran away from strangers
and the people in bizarre costumes at birthday parties.
I was afraid of the dark.
At the time, I ran towards my dad because he was big enough to hide behind.

I dreamed about being Beyonce and flying with Disney princesses.

When I got a little older, I ran away from the truth.
When I ran, I expected that it would hurt less if I didn’t hear it
but the constant wondering ate me alive.

At the time, I ran toward music. I could put in my earphones
and enter a whole new world
a world that gave me what I wanted.
When I ran, I hoped for a change.
I hoped that I didn’t have to face the facts and deal with it.
But the truth was always behind me, breathing on my neck.
No matter how fast I ran or which way I went.

Today when I run, I run away from myself.
I don’t want to identify who I really am
because I know that she’s not who I dreamed of as a child.
More than anything I wish I could run from my surroundings.
I never feel safe or like it’s where I’m supposed to be.

Today when I run, I run toward my future
because I know that when I’m older
I’ll be somewhere that makes me safe, warm and happy.
I’ll have a wonderful career with a beautiful husband and family.
I’ll travel the world and breathe the air of every country there is.

More than anything I wish I could run to the girl I hope to be.
The girl that I portray my future as
because that girl has nothing
but the good in front of her.

This poem, which began with a Pongo fill-in-the-blank, comes into its own through the author’s honest chronicle of their approach to themselves, which largely includes turning away from who they are to other things. Though they express disillusionment with how they’ve turned out, the future promises a meeting with reality and expectation. “I wish I could run to the girl I hope to be”, the writer says, indicating their desire to accept a positive outcome for their future.

All of us have aspects of ourselves we don’t like. We’re all unlike who we’d thought we’d be. But this author models for us how to cope with this feeling, anticipating our future self by embracing who we are in the present.

In our last honorable mention, the poet gives themselves some more immediate advice:

by a young woman, age 13

I see your face, that look in your eyes.
I know you can’t get over what you see on that scale.
But a pound or two isn’t gonna change you.
You’re still the one who makes people smile.
You’re still gonna be able
to see your favorite bands once in a while.
That number is not gonna change you.
It’s not gonna be easy
and it’s not gonna be fun
but I know it can be done.
Stop watching the others
and looking down on yourself.
It’s not fair to you.
Stop thinking about what you don’t deserve
and start thinking what makes you, you.

Whether this message is meant for themselves or someone else, the poem captures the author talking through the problem of a negative self-image. In using the second person point of view, the poet encourages the beholder to accept, finally, what they see in the mirror—a challenging task for all of us. Maybe we’re not tantalized by numbers on a weigh scale, but maybe we turn to the figure on a pay check or the digits of a GPA to define ourselves. This poet teaches us to move away from the quantitative message reported by the scale and towards acceptance of the quality of one’s own personhood. By sharing these insights this author, like all the authors here, becomes an active agent in their own healing and a source of wisdom for all of us seeking to heal as well.