At Spruce Street SCRC we have a good groove going. Luc brings his guitar and I bring the art and theatre games and we enjoy the company of the young people there.
The other day an interesting topic came up. We were sitting around the art table and I had directed the conversation to how to deal with anger. Most of the kids agreed that if someone disrespects you or spreads gossip about you it’s ok to retaliate with violence. When I suggested telling the offending person how that made you feel one young man aged 16 and already a toughened up gang banger said that was ” ho stuff.” I was not sure what he said or meant so he clarified by saying that if you tell someone how you feel that it was “ho stuff- the stuff a ho’ would do.” In other words, showing weakness and consequently dangerous. I had to agree that it probably was a dangerous thing to do in his world and we could come up with a better option. Ignore the insult and walk away were other ideas.
Now contrast this with a conversation I was having with another adult about the work I do and I mentioned risk taking as one of the elements of my teaching. His response was,
” Are you sure you want these kids taking risks? It seems they are already indulging in risky behavior as it is.” It dawned on me that the risks these young people must take involve learning how to be vulnerable in a world that punishes you for it. Talking about your feelings doesn’t come easy to even the most “sophisticated” adult but these young people must find a better solution to their anger other than violence or they will end up in prison. No question about it. Maybe art is a good solution.
A counter intuitive approach to oppositional students.
Be well rested- this environment calls for full engagement.
Be flexible with your curriculum.
Avoid anything that looks like “a therapy session.”
Read the room.
Find the leaders and let them lead.
Find the shy kids and let them slowly engage.
Be outrageous – it shows them that you are not here to tell on them or discipline them.
Partner closely with the facility staff.
Listen, I mean really listen.
Know their names, even if it is just what they want to be called.
Assess success by participation then by duration of activity.
Ask about their world, gangs, drugs, family, licks, fears, other foster homes, youth services.
Get them talking – about anything.
Redirect the conversation when it becomes too drug focused; talk about the future.
Don’t wait for buy-in, just do it.
I thought he was going to hit me. He had already cussed me out and made it clear he was not going to participate in this ” art for faggots” stuff. He asked politely for my acting headshot, tore it up and threw it at me. He flipped me the bird a few times then jumped up and swung from the heating vents that hang from the ceiling. His name is Daniel but he told me he wanted to be called Marquis.
Marquis is a 15 year old juvenile with a great smile and some anger issues. He is living at Spruce Street because he blew out of his former foster care housing and is awaiting a new placement. He came up behind me while I was painting and started pushing my brush around making some pretty cool marks. He began to circle the table in what appeared to be an attempt to suss out his next move. It was what he didn’t do next that was important. He didn’t bother the other kids, he didn’t cuss out me or staff he just kept circling the table.
As he came around I left a sheet of paper out and he stood over it. “I want to throw paint on it.” Boom. Done. Do it. Great idea. For the next 45 minutes he grabbed tubes of paint and began spraying and splattering color after color then massaging it into the paper with his hands. He would let out the most violent yelp as each gesture connected. His body would jerk and jump as he threw harder and more forcefully.
I showed him pictures of Dale Chihuly using a broom to push color around with his feet covered in paint splatters, he said “cool” then asked for another piece of paper.
Every Tuesday and Thursday Luc and I head to Stumptown Coffee on 12th and formulate a plan on what we may expect walking in to Spruce Street, our Theater and Viz Art class for teen runaways located off of 12th across from King Co juvie. We sip coffee and talk about the recent headlines or current events and how they might relate to our kids – i.e. funding, legal issues, cops v. kids etc.
After we are fully pumped on “Teaching Juice” we head on over and get buzzed into the facility. I have learned to look for police cars in the parking lot that hint at some form of trouble or the delivery of a new resident or the exit of an old one. I have also learned that it really does not mean anything. It’s just business as usual at Spruce Street.
After a brief rundown of what is happening, who is hot, who is mellow, we head upstairs for what I like to call ‘the tightrope walk.” It is the first 5 minutes of face time that makes or breaks the class that day. It feels like that sometimes. I do not know whether I will be greeted with hostility, anger, fear or apathy. It is the last one, apathy that is the most difficult to unwind. I can use and deflect the energy from the anger and hostility but trying to get 8 teenagers who have been stripped off their possessions, stripped of their clothes, no shoes, no TV, no friends, off the couch to play our little theatre games or paint a painting is very challenging.
The entire environment is very challenging. These kids are pissed. They have a right to be. They have been strapped with real life adult problems and yes some of which they brought on themselves but it is not easy to keep it together when you have drug addicted parents and no safe place to cool out. So they end up here, with Luc and myself. Every Tuesday and Thursday, playing Bipitty Bipitty Bop and Stone Face. Learning how to Jerk and “do The Dougie”. Sometimes we talk about life on the streets and where they want to end up in their lives or just play music and sing.