Last spring, a writer-friend and I started a creative writing club at Pelham Academy, a high school for girls recovering from trauma. Our friend, Lindsay, who works there, prepared us for our first session. She said it would be best to do most of the talking ourselves, especially at the beginning; the students might be nervous and we shouldn’t expect them to open up much. I was grateful for the tips, since I was pretty nervous myself. I didn’t have much experience with high schoolers, and these girls had been through far more than I had—and most likely had a lot more to write about than I do—which was humbling and a little scary. At our first session, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. I asked them to tell us three words they loved and three words they hated. The words that the girls loved were great, if not a little predictable: words like love, friendship, and (my favorite) pizza. But things got a little more interesting when they shared the words they hated.
“The three words I hate most are vomit, sponge, and Donald Trump,” said one.
“That’s four words,” said another.
“I hate the word pudding. It’s disgusting.”
“Moist,” said another, even though I’d told them they weren’t allowed to say that.
“Ew!” we all said.
Their first assignment was to write a story about their hair. That might sound like a weird prompt, but everyone has a story about their hair. Besides, hair is important, especially to teenage girls. One student, to the breathless laughter of the others, wrote about an unfortunate accident with a vacuum cleaner. Others wrote stories about hair dye gone wrong or scissors gone awry, about how infuriating it was to style curly hair or straight hair, black hair or Hispanic hair or Asian hair, short hair and long hair. From these emerged stories of serious reckoning with not only their hair, but their cultural identities, family histories, and self-expression. The girls were quick to praise each other and lift each other up, to relate to one another and tease each other good-naturedly.
I read aloud from The House on Mango Street (the chapter called “Hairs”) and glanced down at the sheet I’d brought, with questions. I wondered if the excerpt sounded silly and inconsequential to them. But here’s proof that you can always trust the power of a good book: they began to chime in right away.
“It’s sweet. You can see all of the different hair really clearly.”
“My hair is just like her Papa’s hair. Sticks straight up.”
“The mom sounds so nice and warm.”
“Her Mama’s hair smells like bread? What does that mean?”
Soon enough we were talking about words, about what made a family—and a feeling—come alive on the page. The magic of literature and writing took over: One student, who was exploring her gender identity, wrote candidly about it through writing about her hair. Another student shared a poem she’d written in the midst of a messy break-up. And several explored the complications of home: the joy and difficulty of family and the yearning they had for a place where they could feel safe. There was enthusiasm, kindness, confidence. They laughed at one another’s jokes and complimented each other’s writing, as well as each other’s hair.
In the next club meeting, we started making up stories. Since every story starts with desire, we asked them to give us a character, and tell us what that character wanted. Then, collectively, we told stories about a rabbit who wanted chocolate instead of carrots, a boy who wanted a rose, and a girl who attended the funerals of strangers. In this way we arrived at larger themes: the rabbit wants chocolate, but mostly he wants to be understood. The boy wants to find the perfect rose, to show his mother he loves her. And the girl, at one funeral after another, wants to learn how to grieve well, and how we go on in the midst of suffering.
Here are links to some poems we read together, about hair, home, and heart. Happy reading.
“Hairs” by Sandra Cisneros, excerpted from The House on Mango Street
“Why I Stay” by Tiana Nobile
“Accident, Mass. Ave.” by Jill McDonough
-Catherine Flora Con