I’m sitting and basking in the moment as Jenny, a seventeen year old student, performs her final “goodbye” poem for her weekly “spoken word” assignment in my English class:
“Spoken Word has been the greatest present I’ve been given,
Giving into fears I thought misgiving.
You always say to “go there” and I
Never knew where “there” was, just a
Place with apparitions and monsters
In the back of my mind,
Easier to hide,
Than find, and euthanize…”
I’m truly humbled, because of all the topics in the world for her to write about, she’s chosen to express her own growth, and gained wisdom, and gratitude for my guidance as both teacher and mentor.
Although I always relish a student’s appreciation for the work we accomplished together during the semester, this moment is different. For being a part of Jenny’s journey has proven to be an enriching experience filled with many life lessons worthy of retelling.
Six months ago, Jenny’s fears of being vulnerable and of exposing her true self almost forced her to take a much different path. I believed and expressed to her that her written words were some of the most real and poetic I had ever read from a student her age, but she simply refused to actually perform her pieces out loud. In preparation for their Friday presentations, I guide every student down their own individual path regarding presence and form and expression, as the assessment is based on their overall performance of their written pieces for the group. After giving her a pass in week number one, she refused to perform again in week number two. Although she tried to cloak it as disinterest, I knew exactly what she was trying to mask…Fear, and Desire. Fear of exposing herself, her truth, to the world, and the overwhelming Desire to do exactly that.
Her written words were rooted in pain and anger and sorrow, with the raw truth of who she was and how she felt beautifully portrayed through her use of metaphor and imagery. She had a gift, the gift, and I knew how liberating it would be for her to actually put her voice to her truth.
She was certainly stubborn, and she didn’t seem to care much about how this would affect her grade, but it would have been a disservice to her and to the other students if I had allowed her to simply sit as an audience member, for she would have been a constant reminder of how easy it is to allow Fear to squelch Expression. After this second refusal to perform, I asked her to stay back a moment after the rest of the class had gone.
“I understand how difficult and scary this whole experience is for you, Jenny. And I get the fact that you don’t want others to see, and know, the real you. But the assignment is geared to briefly push us out of our comfort zones, so that we can taste what life has to offer outside of our closed off walls. From the words you’ve written, I know you get this, and I would hate for you to not get credit for these assignments every week, but it’s really your choice. I can understand if you’re getting upset with me and my stupid assignment, but remember, this is not about me, it’s about you.”
Jenny had been sitting looking down at her hands the entire time, until my last words found their home. She looked up at me with the faintest expression of hope peering through her dark ambivalent eyes, and then, without a word, she got up, and left.
The following week, not surprisingly, Jenny seemed even more disengaged from the class, feigning sick and skipping out of it altogether on Wednesday and Thursday. What truly upset me, however, was hearing from my other students that she had stopped writing altogether. I’d been around teenagers enough to know that many times they will consciously avoid the very thing that they know can help them, but I was dismayed by the fact that this strong-willed teenager was squelching her own abilities and creativity in the process.
As an observant teacher and aware adult, I understood that Jenny was allowing her stubborn self to view this as a war of wills, so I approached her in the dining hall and handed her a piece of paper. When she thought she was out of sight, she unfolded it and read my handwritten words: The door is always open.
She stared at those five words for more than a full minute, and the next day, Friday, after the first two students had already performed, we heard a loud and determined knock. Every head turned in anticipation, and in that life-enhancing moment, Jenny walked back in through the door.
I will never forget Jenny’s first performance. After a deep breath, she infused herself into her words, and we all visibly witnessed the release of the heavy burdens which she’d been carrying for years, and her unshackling of the fears which had bound her within a deafening silence. When her final word fell, the tears and the praise and the hugs from the other students proved once again the power which comes from expressing truth.
Week after week, Jenny’s courage was contagious as she pushed the boundaries with what she wrote and how she performed. With every piece, we empathized with this young woman through her poetically stirring expression of her life’s experiences. Whereas her insecurities had once forced her to avert her gaze, I was truly moved when she began to hold and maintain eye contact longer and longer throughout her performances and our conversations.
Jenny was growing into a much stronger, responsible and self-realized individual, and although I continued to push her in these assignments, I made sure to remind her of just how far she’d come in this process. We both fully realized that it took her walking out, to be able to walk back in.
Thinking back to when she first arrived at the school, untrusting, angry and lost within herself, I am now beaming with pride as she bravely performs her final piece in front of me and her peers, with clear eyes, an open heart and pure presence.
“Did I mention you helped save me from myself,
Withheld inside this shell,
Dispelled inside this Hell.
The first day I won’t forget,
Staying silent would’ve been my biggest regret…”
I will be forever grateful that Jenny was courageous enough to trust herself and strong enough to truly express herself. Her brave actions taught us all that although many of our insecurities, and fears, and anxieties seem to create a steel-hard wall, the actual veil is so very thin and can be blown away with one small leap of faith.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Winston writes our monthly column, Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom, illustrating the life lessons that he taught, and just as often learned, both in and out of the classroom. Jeff has lived in Easthampton since 2007, after moving up from Philadelphia with his wife, Alli, and their 3 dogs, Murphy, Zoey and Maggie. Jeff has a private tutoring business, Tap Your Truth, specific to enhancing writing and study skills, focusing on empowering individuals through their own written and spoken words. Jeff writes a blog called Better Out Than In…, a place to read creative expressions of his life’s experiences, samples of his student’s work, and tidbits that will enable readers to gain insight into their own lives.