Building a Bridge with Words

Students at Face to Face Academy Writing Workshop (Photo: Carole Mannheim)

At the writing workshop, I ask the students if they are here because they think writing is important. A couple of them raise their hands. Then I ask if they are taking the workshop because they will receive extra credit, and most of the hands shoot up.

I had offered to share my love of language by teaching this workshop at Face to Face Academy, a charter school for homeless youth in crisis, after learning that 70 percent of all teens in foster care end up being homeless for a year or two—foster parents no longer receive help from the government when the child turns eighteen. Homeless might mean sleeping on a friend’s couch, not necessarily on the street, but when I think about my own teenage years—a time of opportunity and optimism for the future, not uncertainty as to where I might spend the night—I want to do something concrete to reach out to teens whose lives are in upheaval, to build a bridge between myself and them, to demonstrate that others do care.

Located at 1165 Arcade Street, Face to Face is a lighthouse on the shoals of broken families, domestic violence, unstable homes, and trouble with authorities—places where words are cheap and promises broken.

Even though I trust the writing process, I am always surprised at how much we accomplish. We read and discuss a poem briefly, then use a line or concept from it to jump-start spontaneous associations. Just keep writing, I tell them.

My students come back week after week. Each time they want to know how many weeks are left, but each week, they show up, even if they haven’t attended school that day.

We write about places we call home, what we will never forget, what makes us happy, our hopes and dreams.

I am a relative newcomer to the Twin Cities, and I had heard that for such a cold place, there is a warm heart. I find it here, at the edge where despair and hope meet, where a teen learns strength, learns to be responsible for his or her choices, learns that life may not be fair but you can ask for, and get, a second chance. 

At the end of the workshop, I ask them to write on a slip of paper what they have learned. “What if I didn’t learn anything?” a student asks—the one with perfect attendance. “Then write what you accomplished,” I suggest. She shrugs. “I showed up.” I chuckle; but really, for a teen in crisis, that is an accomplishment. Not to mention the lovely poem that she hands in. Yes. We showed up. For eight weeks. For the sake of words.  

Wendy Brown-Báez is a poet, teacher, spoken word artist, whose CD is titled Longing for Home, and author of a new collection of poems, Ceremonies of the Spirit. Wendy also established In the Shelter of Words, a special project at the Face to Face Academy charter school in Saint Paul.

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