I’ve been giving writing workshops at a local high school on the wrong side of the tracks. These kids have already been through lots of trauma and stress, though they’re only in their teens. These particular twenty kids, however, have fallen in love with writing, and it’s offering them a way to deal with broken families, broken hearts, and broken promises. They learned that on their own without me.
I’m there to show them that writing can offer them even more. It wasn’t easy at first. Some of them started out prickly. It’s natural when life’s been a hostile environment to be always on guard. It took patience, but we’re past that now. And they’re writing some phenomenal poems.
This last workshop I had the joy of telling them that their work would be published in an anthology of Kansas City student writing and that they would give a public reading at The Writers Place, the city’s stand-alone center for writers and literature. They’re pretty excited. This is a kind of validation that they almost never get. And since the poems that will be published were from a workshop we did around identity and specific imagery, it’s a special kind of validation. They opened their hearts on the page about the good and bad things in their families and their lives, and society is saying, “You are great just as you are!”
Out of the school population of 348, these twenty kids are winners. They may not be the only ones, of course, and they may not all go on to college. However, they have learned to use language to help themselves through tough times. They have learned to use language to form images of who they are and where they want to go.
The metropolitan Kansas City area is divided by the state line between Missouri and Kansas. I’m grateful that these students and I live on the Missouri side, which is, in general, much poorer than the Kansas side with its quite wealthy suburbs. Because of political ideology, Kansas as a state has denied the arts. Its governor disbanded the Kansas Arts Commission and sent back tons of money to the NEA. Missouri, almost as conservative a state, has kept its Arts Commission alive, barely at times but alive still.
It’s the Missouri Arts Commission that is funding these workshops, the publication of this student anthology, and the public reading for the students. I keep hearing from conservative politicians that the arts are just for rich, elitist liberals and offer nothing of value to everyday people. Don’t tell that to these shining-faced kids. They are writers, artists, and they know better.