For two years, I’ve lead writing workshops at a homeless shelter for youths aged 18 to 24. Each time I step into the classroom – two white boards and three tables pushed together – I have no idea what’s in store. Will anyone show up? Will whoever does be in the mood to write? I pull from my bag the paper, books and pens we’ll need as a few students start to trickle in.
Two students I’ve worked with in the past show up and drop into chairs. Another, who I haven’t seen in months slips into the room. Where you been? I ask. He gives me a sly smile. They come from all walks – African-American, Latino, white, gay, straight, transgender – and while I may not know the details of their circumstances, I know they’ve all been bruised by life.
I feel at home as soon as the group starts to assemble. Despite the differences between us – in age, background, culture, and life circumstance – there is something that connects us. I feel it at the start of every workshop. A hunger. Not just theirs but mine too.
After a round of introductions, I tell everyone to grab a book of poems and choose one they like. Once a poem is selected, they’ll choose a notable line from the poem and read it to the group. This line will then become a prompt for writing. The books disappear from the table. Silence envelopes the room. Before long, someone has a poem. The student reads it aloud, his voice deep but hushed. He chooses a line and reads that too. I tell everyone to write for seven to ten minutes without stopping. Just see what comes out, I say.
I write too. My hunger connecting with theirs as our pens work the page.
When everyone’s pen has stopped moving, the student I haven’t seen in a while volunteers to read. Suddenly, the door bursts open and someone asks what we’re doing. Writing, I say. The late comer pulls a face and disappears out the door again. The student who was interrupted rolls his eyes loudly but finishes reading his poem anyway. Then we go around the table, listening to everyone read. Each poem is unique. One longs for a just world, without racism and homophobia, another tells of personal regrets and the resolve to begin again. All are honest.
Instead of repeating what we’ve just done, someone suggests taking a prompt from the poems they’ve just written. Heads nod. There it is again: the hunger.
It’s a hunger to be loved and accepted, certainly. But it’s something more too. What I feel in the room is a hunger for words. Words that express the confounding twists of life. The hurt and the healing. Dreams and aspirations. It is the need to find just the right word and bend it into something useful. Something that can be wrapped around shoulders for warmth. Or given as a gift.
As I listen to the second round of poems, deeper than the first, the room fills with sated hunger. It rises like steam from fresh baked bread. The smell of home.