Some months ago, I mentioned here that I'd signed on to teach an eight-week writing course to a group of at-risk boys. The kids are juvenile offenders residing at a residential treatment facility, and the program is run by the great folks at Spoken Interludes. I accepted largely because I liked the idea of doing something that wasn't pure self-involvement - between the novel, the blog and cycling training, it's a slightly hermetic existence these days, and I welcomed the oppportunity to do something a bit more outwardly directed.
I also decided early on not to blog about the experience. Partly out of a desire to respect the boys' privacy and also partly out of a fear that I'd simply begin to treat it like material and then the initial selfless impulse would be lost.
Well, the program is over and I attended the "graduation" reading today where the boys from all the writing groups (there were four instructors) got together and shared their writing. I was absolutely blown away by the work presented. In the weeks past, I've watched my preconceptions fall quickly. I'd imagined, for example, there'd be a strong tilt toward adventure, fantasy - vehicles of escape. But these boys were much more interested in facing life head on - in my first class, when I asked them what sort of things they wanted to write about, more boys than not expressed their interest in examining relationships. And the stories tackled the realities of their lives - of violence, of drugs, of gangs but also of pain and loss and loneliness. As well as the sort of themes that attract any teenage boy - popularity, friendship and, of course, girls. Several of them have an ear for dialogue that any screenwriter would envy.
It's a harsh world these boys have come up through, and we lost a few along the way. Two of my students were removed from the program and sent away for "acting out" as it was called. (I never asked the boys about what they had done that got them there.) As for me, I fear I was probably only a mediocre teacher - it was, after all, my first time - and it wasn't until the last few classes that my little group really came to life, especially when we began to work on revisions, and they learned how stories can be improved with each pass. (Perhaps my biggest contribution was to have deviated from the required reading list to bring them an excerpt from The Count of Monte Cristo. When I came back the following week, two of the boys had it out from the library and had almost finished it.)
At any rate, it was a remarkable experience, one I'm pleased and honored to have taken part in. The best news is that this group of boys will get to do a public reading at Borders in Westwood on July 25. I'll be mentioning this more as it gets closer but nothing would be better for their self-images than to read to a full, appreciative house. Hope to see many you there.