The punch came in an unlikely setting: a writing workshop at a girls’ high school in South Los Angeles where I was a creative writing instructor.
It was a small county-run school, a sort of last resort for girls who hadn’t succeeded at regular schools, and they were a tough bunch. Still, I hadn’t expected classroom violence. So, when Gabriela (student names have been changed), who was one of the class’s most enthusiastic writers, slammed a fist into the cheek of the girl next to her, I froze. Did I really just see that?
All doubt was dismissed when the victim lunged at her assailant. As I vainly tried to pull them apart, they tumbled to the ground, joined by fury and fistfuls of each other’s hair. The principal rushed in. They were yanked out, mothers were called.
After a year of giving those workshops, my respect for inner-city school teachers is boundless. Just getting the students to pay attention was a monumental task. They would simply refuse to stop looking up Chanel handbags on their cell phones or chit-chatting about acrylic “coffin-style” nails. In every class there was at least one student who laid her head on the desk and napped, one who pulled a vanishing act after asking permission to go to the bathroom, one who assumed the role of disruptive clown.
But there were also students who would scribble away in their journals, the rare reigns of silence when all heads bowed to the task, and the occasional triumph of getting a piece of writing out of a really hard-core girl, or a beam of pride. That was what kept me going back week after week.
The purpose of the workshop was to encourage creative expression. I couldn’t be fussy; basically, I was happy if they wrote anything. Their academic level was low. They’d ask what words like “obstacle” meant, and stumble over reading words comprised of more than two syllables. But what they had plenty of was resilience. These teens had experienced more in their young lives than many adults I know.
I never asked why they were in that school, but they would let slip bits and pieces of their lives in their stories. Two had been in juvenile hall. One had an ankle bracelet and was still on probation. Another had gone through AA on a court order. One was expecting a baby, another had just returned to school after having a baby, one had miscarried. One joked about being undocumented from Mexico while another mentioned suicide attempts.
They most liked to write about their lives, and that’s where I had the best breakthroughs. Yajaira wrote a letter to her infant son, saying that even though his father had abandoned them, they didn’t need him. Kaylee wrote a tribute to the strength of her mother, a single mom of five who had been a teenage mother and abused by boyfriends.
We had drama. Gabriela choked up as she read aloud her piece about a friend who had died. “I know who you’re talking about—the dead homie, Oscar,” another piped up. We held a moment of silence for the dead homie.
Another class ended in tears when Maritza, with a defiant toss of her hip-length hair, loudly declared that girls who got pregnant were stupid. That provoked an emotional defense from Janesha, who had given birth to stillborn twin girls a few months back and slept on a bus shelter bench during her pregnancy. After others stuck up for Janesha, Maritza broke down sobbing and apologized.
Over time their trust in me grew. Brianne showed me a letter, printed in pencil, from her boyfriend in county jail. Astrid confided that she wanted to be a sheriff’s deputy but asked me to keep it quiet since cops weren’t popular among her friends.
I wanted to return to the school the following year, but I couldn’t afford the time it took from my freelance writing and editing. But maybe something I said or did inspired one of the girls to keep a journal, write a poem, read a book. Maybe, just maybe, I planted a seed that will convince them of the power of their own creativity. And maybe that will help them deal with the challenges of life in some way. I can only hope.
Christina Hoag is the author of two novels "Girl on the Brink", named to Suspense Magazine’s Best YA list, and "Skin of Tattoos", Silver Falchion Award finalist. She also co-authored the nonfiction book "Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence". A former journalist, she reported from Latin America for Time, Financial Times, New York Times and other media. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals. She recently won Honorable Mentions for essay and short story in the International Human Rights Arts Festival Literary Justice Awards 2020.