Ed. Note: We’re excited to bring you the third in this three-part series by author Christina Hoag, which describes her experiences teaching a variety of at-risk students the basics of creative writing. The first article ran in May and the second in June.
Except for the toddlers waddling on the track field like a flock of ducklings and a row of strollers lined up along a wall, the cement block building looks like any other high school, but it has one big difference: it’s designed for teen moms and moms-to-be.
My latest stint as a creative writing mentor is at this alternative high school for girls in East Los Angeles. It’s got a free daycare center, policies that allow students to nurse and visit their babies during the school day, and none of the stigma that pregnant girls often endure at mainstream high schools.
As the bell rings, the girls filter in and take their seats. Not all have babies or are pregnant. A good number of them are there because of chronic truancy and other problems at their regular high school. But they are all Latina, which is not surprising. East L.A. is 97 percent Hispanic, mostly Mexican-American, and working class. More than a quarter of the residents live in poverty.
The girls study me intensely. I don’t know if it’s because, being white, I look different than them, or because they’re wondering what this writing thing is all about. Likely both. I explain that each workshop is going to focus on different genres and aspects of writing: fiction, poetry, songwriting, world-building and scene-writing. They don’t look very interested but they dutifully open their journals.
Faces fall particularly blank when I announce we’re going to write science fiction. I realize they have no idea what science fiction is.
“You mean like ‘Alien’?” one finally says after my attempt to define it.
That actually turns out to be one of the most successful classes. The girls love making up worlds and seem pleased and surprised about the rich power of their creativity. There’s almost a palpable rise in collective self-esteem in the room when several share their pieces. I get the impression they are rarely encouraged to use their imaginations.
I’ve found that students from limited environments often work best when they draw on their own lives. When we’re naming characters, I ask them how they came up with their babies’ names and that leads to a lively discussion. When they’re writing a poem, I suggest they write something they’d want to read to their children, and that spurs on a few.
The girls who are mothers work more diligently than the ones who are not, many of whom sit listlessly complaining, “I don’t know what to write.” Responsibility for another human being, I surmise, tends to raise the stakes of maturity in life.
It also changes the typical chitchat of a sixteen-year-old. The moms don’t spend a lot of time talking about fashion, clothes, or music. Like any new mothers, they boast about their kids. They proudly show me pictures on their phones and share developmental milestones of sitting, standing, and first words. An eighteen-year-old tells me she has eleven-month-old twin girls. They don’t mention the kids’ fathers so I don’t ask.
Still, at heart, they’re just teenagers seeking safety in conformity. They all dress in a virtual uniform of sweatshirts and jeans – maternity clothing is just oversize sweats–and wear their hair long and flowing.
When I tell them I have a son, they want to know when he started to walk and started to eat solid food. My son is twenty-one years-old. I have to reach far into the crevices of memory to find answers.
Many of the girls are a couple years behind their grade because they had to take time out of school to have their babies. They ask me how to spell words like “disappoint.” They’re also absent a lot, which hinders their progress.
Outside the window, infants totter around a playground, dig in a sandbox, and clamber over plastic toys under the watchful eyes of child-minders as their mothers try to get ahead in life. As very young single parents, their path won’t be easy, but I’m glad that the Los Angeles Unified School District had the vision to create a school where the girls have support instead of judgment.
Hopefully, that will help them gain some options in life and a sense of self-worth beyond motherhood.
And maybe, just maybe, a series of creative writing workshops will have helped.
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, and reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week, Financial Times and the New York Times, among other media. She is the author of YA romantic thriller Girl on the Brink, which was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 list, and Skin of Tattoos, a noir crime novel. She also co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence. She lives in Los Angeles. www.christinahoag.com.
To learn more about Girl on the Brink, click on the cover below: