On J.’s first day at our school, where all of the students are teen moms, we happened to be having a special poetry reading. Our guest was Aleida Rodriguez, a well-known poet who has written emotionally moving poems about her mother. During the reading Aleida frequently broke into tears and then just as frequently apologized for crying.
“You don’t have to keep saying you’re sorry,” J. announced from her seat in the center of the room. Who is this new girl who dared to speak up to our guest poet? I wondered. “It should be okay to cry here,” J. told Aleida, “it’s an all-girls school after all.”
As it happens, I think boys should have just as much license to cry, but that’s beside the point in this case. The point is that J., a teenage girl, was wisely coaching us all in the art of tears. Little did I know that first morning, she would continue to do so in the months that followed.
As I’ve come to know J. better, I’ve learned she has plenty to cry about. Her brother can’t seem to shake a drug habit and her father abused both J. and her mother. Remembering herself as a little girl, the year her father finally left the family, J. wrote “I can’t believe an 8-year-old could feel so much hate.”
Last week in class J. cried as she listened to her classmates read poems about one girl’s father who died of AIDS, another’s grandmother who died of old age, a baby who died in utero, and a friend who was shot and killed on the streets. Crying might seem the natural response to stories like those, but all of us have been trained to be strong, and J. and her classmates have had more practice than most at confronting tragedy and burying pain.
This week J. teared up again when another student, who found out this week that she passed her GED, wrote a poem of farewell to her classmates.
“You’re going to miss her, aren’t you,” I asked as I passed J. a tissue.
“Yes,” she said, “but that’s not all.” She was crying, she explained, because one day she too will graduate. And when she does she’ll have to leave the first school she ever enjoyed coming to. She’ll have to leave behind the best friends she’s ever had. She’ll have to return to a life she described in a recent essay as being ruled by Murphy’s Law: Everything bad that could happen, does, she wrote.
I tried to reassure her that the friendships she’s made here will continue. That college can provide another supportive community of caring teachers and students.
“It’s good to get it out,” another student reassured her as J. cried. Then E. joined in, and soon we were passing the tissue box around again.
It was three minutes to one; time for poetry class to end and the next to begin.
“Okay, everyone,” I said. “Take a deep cleansing breath. Inhale everything that’s good and strong and breathe out all the sadness, anger and pain.” After a great collective exhalation, I told everyone it was time to go. But first, I thanked J. for giving us all the freedom to break down and cry.