For 9 weeks now a group of 7 teens, aged 13-18, have been coming to an after school, independent, poetry writing workshop. These teens live with a variety of chronic illnesses themselves or live with a family member who is chronically ill.
I began this workshop for teens after several years of teaching writing to, and working with, parents of kids living with chronic illness. I had written a grant to interview these, and other parents, and write a series of poems based on those conversations. When I presented my work, one of the places I read was an inner city clinic in Seattle where many of the sickle cell families I had conversed with, are seen. Subsequently, I was asked by the staff if I could teach a workshop for teens. I was excited by the idea and with the help of two more grants, was given this opportunity.
Tonight is the inaugural, culminating reading. They will read to their families, friends, clinic doctors, nurses, social workers and other community members.
They have shown determination and resilience in writing about their illnesses, about their feelings of loneliness, fear and anger. They have written about what makes them feel better, their hopes, joys and what can also be seen as normal teenage concerns of belonging, identity and passion. I put the word normal in italics because this is the thing they all struggle with, and against. What does it mean to be normal, what does it mean to have an added issue of chronic illness to layer upon the everyday stresses of school, family, social life? How do I define myself, how do others define me? (My belief is all of them are bigger than their illness and expressing all parts of themselves allows them and others to see their fullness. It enlarges all of our lives.)
They are courageous, not only in their writing, but in their willingness to get up in front of people and read their work aloud. When we first started practicing for this reading 3 weeks ago, many of them swore they couldn’t do it. They wanted one girl to read all their work, as they thought she was the “true poet” and not afraid of speaking aloud. But gradually, after much laughing, and consternation about whether they’d be laughed at, they were able to make it through a full run practice. Then one girl commented brightly, “this is going to be fun”.
Their work will also be available in book form. They chose the title: Based on a True Story: Just Beyond the Gate.
For a copy of this booklet, please see the online store soon.