“I’m not a writer,” she said.
She was only fifteen, a quiet girl in a spirited unit, and like so many other students I had taught, her eyes seemed to have enough sadness for an entire lifetime.
“Just give it a try, and see what happens.”
Over the years, I had said the same thing to dozens, maybe by now hundreds, of students at the juvenile hall. And like so many others, it had taken her a few weeks to begin feeling comfortable in her unit’s InsideOUT Writers’ class, and I sensed she was now ready to share, including maybe a bit of that sadness. So I pushed her a little.
“Come on, just give it try.”
“I don’t know what to write about,” she continued, unsure where to start.
Her parents were no longer alive, victims of the violence in her world, and she had recently told me the story of her only brother also being killed. I suggested that if she felt comfortable sharing it, she might try and write about that. She looked at me for a few very long seconds, then finally agreed to give it a try. And I still remember the chill traveling down my spine as the first few words appeared on her paper.
“There’s a bullet where my heart used to be.”
She had lied to me, I told her. She WAS a writer, with the soul of a poet, and as she continued, she looked up at me and smiled for the first time in class.
I smiled back.
I think that’s our job as teachers. To let students know it’s okay, it’s safe, to look inside and see what they find. To grab that pen and to start writing and to see what happens.
Not all of the students are poets, but it’s not about that. It’s instead about them seeing who they are, how they got there, and, if we do our job, about who they can become.
Gary Gilbert has produced and written on a dozen different television series and pilots, and feels privileged to be able to spend time with such interesting and creative students who teach him and surprise him each week.