Many, many good things happened in our workshops at the Youth Detention Center. Often these would occur fleetingly, a quick laugh, a searching question, an eager listening pose, an insightful comment. It would be impossible to list all of these, but they happened frequently. Here are some that were important to me.
The boys, and finally, girls really liked the stories. They would come into the workshop sullen and resentful with their heads down. As we told, the heads would rise, eye contact would be made and, eventually, faces and body language showed total involvement. New residents, who didn’t know what to expect and who started out with embarrassed giggles, very quickly saw that the residents who had previously participated in Storytelling were listening and listened themselves. Students remembered the stories from day to day. Even after my first solo venture, when Julie P came in the next day they could repeat what I’d told them.
There could be genuine enthusiasm. There would be amen corner responses, often obscene and incredulous that the characters could behave this way or angry at the frequent injustice. There could be energetic discussions afterwards. If time was up and a story wasn’t finished, they would insist on knowing how it ended. They could retell the stories. Occasionally they would tell their own. Boys who had been released and found their way back would greet us and tell us which stories they remembered we had told them. Once, a boy who expressed his disgust at the silliness of the stories provoked this response (more or less). “Just listen. These stories have a lot to do with us.”
The workshop aspect of each session usually involved some sort of creative response to the story. Most of these were very successful. They painted masks, made dream catchers, constructed collages of magic trees and monsters, painted and drew and used markers. They often worked with an intensity and focus that surprised me. If one session wasn’t enough to finish the work, they wanted to continue the next day. Often they wanted to take the results back with them to the residence area. They wrote vivid poetry drawn from their own experiences and were pleased to have it read aloud. It’s hard to imagine where else in their lives the opportunity for this kind of expression would arise
With those boys who were there for an extended period we did develop a trust and familiarity. W was a prime example. He was there for a year, waiting to reach his majority so he could be sent to real jail. When he first arrived, Julie DT and I were using the tarot cards again. He was clearly miserable. I gave him The Tower and told him just to look at it. He did. He cheered up as time went on, listened closely, had much to say and became a favorite of ours. We have kept a running commentary on our sessions on a wiki site and during that year, the comments increasingly mentioned W, his responses and general participation, even whether or not he was there, as if that in itself were an important point. I wished him well the last time I saw him before he left. I couldn’t shake his hand because at that time were were not supposed to touch the boys, but I would have. On his way out he said that he would see me again. He didn’t know how but he would. I think we still miss him.
There’s the story of A. When I first met him, I referred him in my wiki post, to my lasting shame, as a dope. He giggled constantly and blurted out inappropriate comments, and did strange disruptive things with whatever was at hand. He was, of course, a damaged person with something like Tourette’s, though I have no idea whether that was it. Julie DT and I went in one day to find, to our relief, that he was gone. As part of this work at the Morris County facilities, we would spend a third 45 minute session at the youth shelter down the hill (a story for another blog). When we arrived this time, there was A. He told us that his favorite story was “The Ugly Duckling”. Julie asked why. He said that he felt like the duckling, hated and avoided.
That day, we were telling stories about the goddess and A contributed excellent observations about the powers of women. Julie sort of told the “Duckling”. When I told my story, I think it was Baba Yaga, he focused, was quiet, and tried hard to articulate his response when I was through. It was a stunning example of the power a story can have. A was touched, focused, brought back for a time from his usual disruption. It was a session neither Julie nor I will forget.
Finally there was H who spent his classes, when T was present, with his head in his hands. He never looked up. At this point we were in a different room with no guard so we let him get away with it. When T left, H’s head would come up for a while. He began to comment on the stories from within his arms. “Just because my head’s in my arms that doesn’t mean I’m not listening.” Sometimes he came in and was totally there. His re-emergence was another example of the way trust would build with a resident who was in the Center for a long time. During our last few sessions last Spring, we had the boys writing dialogue and acting it out, often improvising. (Without a guard present, we were able to move around and interact.) The sessions were noisy and delightful. It was play. H wrote at length. During one of those sessions I told “The Golden Bird” again. He had a lot to say, and anticipated events in the story as it went along. He was impatient with the foolishness of the hero. At the very last session, Paula and I decided just to tell stories. Paula announced that it might be our very last time there. H looked up, mouth open in astonishment and, I think, dismay. After Paula explained why, he went back to his writing, one ear cocked to our stories. He was leaving the facility shortly thereafter.
We rarely knew what these residents had done to bring them to the Detention Center and we did not want to know. We were working with something else. Except for what we could see once in a while during the sessions, it is difficult to know if we made any impact. Did W take some part of us or our stories with him to help sustain him through his hard time? Did any of the residents, as they lay in bed at night, in lock-down, think about the story they had just heard? Did it make a connection? We can only hope so. Was it all worth it? Absolutely.
As a postscript, I need to say that one of the wonderful things for me about working at these facilities was the chance to interact so closely and cooperatively with four great storytellers who were full of ideas and offered wonderful support, all under Paula’s capable guidance.