Guest post by Karen Lausa, Executive Director of Words Beyond Bars and Friend of Free Minds
We pulled into the parking lot of the M.V. Leckie Education Campus, the playground jammed with kindergartners running around in happy packs on a gorgeous, sunny DC morning. I was excited to be accompanying a Free Minds crew to meet with the Lion Heart Book Club, 15 sixth and seventh grade boys, many drawn to acting out because of the absence of a father figure in their lives. Better off participating in a reading and poetry club, they have been recommended by their teachers. The children all shuffled into the annex classroom; with their lunch trays balanced in their arms, excited to eat their pizza and meet the visitors–Poet Ambassadors Terrell and Nokomis, Free Minds staff Tara Libert and Mbachur Mbenga, and me.
Tara began to welcome the curious, animated kids, a roiling pack of energy, with her gift of warmth, positivity and high spirits. They found their focus in her introductions and overview of the Free Minds mission. “What does the book club mean to you?” asked Tara, requesting one-word answers only. “Bravery.” “Loyalty.” “Pride.” “Freedom.” Motivation.” “Strength.” I got a lump in my throat when the school counselor added, “We’re about books and brotherhood.”
A haunting poem, Ghost Dad, was read aloud. The simple words of longing and abandonment by a dad caught every student’s attention. Hands flew up as the children took turns explaining their own challenges at home. Tara reminded them over and over again: “Write it down, write it down, write it down!”
The Free Minds Poet Ambassadors are working on their own successful reentry after being incarcerated as teenagers. They began to share their stories, and the boys were spellbound. For every tragic bend in the road, every poor, impulsive decision, the children stayed with the stories, listening closely and heeding the gentle warning from the patient young men willing to provide testimonials. The children gazed at Terrell and Nokomis with a palpable sense of connection. They’ve heard the speeches before, about gangs, bullying, and peer pressure. But when the ambassadors spoke, you could hear a pin drop. Many questions were asked and the discussion was lively and interactive. No preaching. No judgment.
“Did they bully you in jail?” ”Why did you get shot?” “How can I be good when I already feel bad? (“My mom’s so stressed because my brother’s suspended. I’m trying to help out, but I still get in trouble.”)
And the boldest question of all: “Were you scared?”
“Of course I was scared, “Nokomis began. “I was a teenager. I could have been in college. I could have been playing football, I could have joined the Air Force and become a pilot. I had bigger dreams before I was shot… instead I was sent to prison for 11 years.”
The meeting closed with a few more words from Terrell. “I grew up in jail. Be careful who you listen to, who you hang out with, because as a child, you’re absorbing every word you hear and that will become your character.”
“Identify with the positive,” Terrell reminded them, and Tara added, “Write it down, write, it down, write it down. And never give up on yourselves- there’s so much more to your life.”
We all snapped loudly as we hurried to wrap up before the bell would ring. Something shifted in that classroom as a result of our visit. Maybe it was the living proof that we all have choices to make but even if you do something wrong, you’re still good. Just go write a poem about it.