Over the past week, I have grappled with my own sense of self-identity, trying to come to terms with the new persona I have projected onto myself in the past couple of months—the persona of teacher. I realized, not with a flash but with the slow rumble of a thunder peal, that I have a lot of growing to do in order to fill that role. It started in classroom in Juvenile Hall, in the midst of a group of young women who had come to learn about creative journaling, and about self-expression, and the potential of creative work to change your life.
Our decision to use the theme “Change” was driven by the curriculum of the Girls Inc. program which brought us into Juvenile Hall. All Melodye and I did was pare it down: instead of asking the girls to journal about things they would like to change about themselves (as was suggested), we decided to leave it open to interpretation. To let them decide how change fit into their lives.
We planned the lesson. We made sample pages. Our Girls’ Inc. coordinator had a list of needed supplies. I put together handouts (a one-page introduction to the concept of creative journaling, and a cut-sheet on the theme of change) and had them printed in color at Kinkos.
We packed everything up and met at the flagpole in front of Juvenile Hall, just as twilight was settling over the sky and the walkways were filled with lawyers and court officials heading home from their jobs.
I should, as a writer, be able to accurately convey what it felt like going into that place. But I find my descriptive prowess failing me, perhaps because the experience is still too raw for me to start defining it with words. I can tell you that it was not horrible. It felt like an institution, yes, with locked doors and check points, worn carpet on the floor, paint dull on the walls. But there were no bars or anything that I (tv-educated as I am) might normally associate with prisons. Only in the yard, where a basketball court sat behind 12-foot fences topped with rolls of barbed wire, was it hammered home that this was, indeed, a prison. For the most part, it felt more like a school. Not a particularly nice school, but a school nonetheless.
Which is good, I suppose, given that the inmates are children.
I came into the world of creative journaling through the back door, as a curator. Or, more accurately, as an editor of an art magazine. I valued my role as a conduit between artists and readers, helping to spread artistic vision, techniques and inspiration. Encouraging others to experiment and grow, both artistically and spiritually. I benefited exponentially myself from these lessons, and felt my own spirit grow as I began to express myself creatively—visually—in ways I had never dared before. But I never imagined myself to be the source of these lessons. I was, as I said, simply a conduit.
When Melodye seeded the idea of teaching workshops in creative journaling, I was a little nervous at first, but I was confident I could make it work. I knew the techniques. I was familiar with the tools and materials. I had wide-spread knowledge of styles and methods. I had no problem getting up in front of people and teaching what I knew. If it worked out, I thought, I might be able to turn it into a money-making venture down the road. It would be nice, I thought, to find some positive take-away for myself from my time editing the magazine.
Tools. Materials. Technique. All wrapped up with a philosophy that emphasized process over product. I was ready to go.
When we got into our classroom, we ran into a few hiccups with our lesson plan. We ended up having half the time we planned on, and our coordinator had forgotten to bring any glue (it’s very difficult to do collage without glue!). Fortunately, we were able to acquire glue from the staff, so we weren’t at a complete loss on how to proceed, bu the near catastrophe left us both with a few jangled nerves.
We passed out paper, magazines, scissors, gel pens, stickers. We passed around the glue. We told them the basic steps to follow (“Write the theme, ‘change’, anywhere on your paper, add borders if you want, add images that express the theme for you…”) They got down to the creative work with a clear sense of enjoyment, and it was great to see their own creative skills come out to play. Lettering, for example—some of the girls had the most expressive, elaborate handwriting that I could only dream of emulating some day.
But five minutes into the “lesson” I began to sense a growing unease in myself, not because of anything the girls did or said—I never once felt a moment’s discomfort working with these girls. If I’d met them under any other circumstances, I never once would have suspected them of having trouble with the law, or any of the troubles that lead up to people having trouble with the law. They were friendly, energetic, creative…they were just girls.
My problem was all about me: I began to doubt what I was doing there. I began to wonder what I had to offer these girls.
It has taken me the rest of the week to figure out why I felt the way I did, back in that classroom, and it would be impossible to track the course of thoughts and scattered conversations as I tried to wend my way through the puzzle. I can only try to share the realizations I came to eventually, and hope it all makes sense.
Some of it you may have already guessed at, because of the way I have structured my tale. Much of my early confidence to teach revolved around my familiarity with the tools and materials of creative journaling, a legacy of my time as an editor. Much of what we published was “how-to”—how to use this material/tool in order to replicate this effect. Such instruction was what I was most comfortable with, and it became the core of my teaching program.
However, in that classroom in Juvenile Hall, we reached the limits of tools and materials instruction in about five minutes. I walked around the table after that, making sure everyone had everything they needed, offering encouragement and admiration at the creativity that was in progress, but more and more I just kept asking myself, “Now what?” If this had been a normal class setting, I would have moved on to some other technique: “Look what you can do with watercolor crayons!” or “Check out this cool effect you can do with packing tape.” But we didn’t have any of that stuff for the girls to use (and some of what we did have was actually contraband!) and so there was, in my perception, nothing more for me to teach.
How can I be a teacher if there is nothing left for me to teach?
I know—and Melodye has reiterated this to me—that the really important thing about that class was giving these girls the space and the permission to express themselves creatively. I knew before I walked in there that it isn’t the number or the quality of your materials that make creative journaling a valuable exercise. It’s process, not product, right? In the end, a pencil and a piece of notebook paper is all you need. I never thought that a lack of materials was going to inhibit the girls’ experience (well, except maybe the lack of glue, but we would have managed that somehow).
But my experience was inhibited because, after the first rush of introduction and explanation and instruction, I didn’t have anything else to do. I felt useless. These girls didn’t need me to show them how to cut pictures and words out of magazines or glue them to a piece of paper. They certainly didn’t need me showing them how to do pretty lettering. What did they need me for? The rest of it, the creative exploration, discovery, play, all the intangible things that make journaling valuable…all that is up to them, isn’t it? How do you teach that part?
Ironically (or maybe not) it was creating this journal page that helped me to get here, to be able to make sense of this experience at all. I knew I wanted to use the gold mesh on the page, with something trapped behind it, even before the trip to Juvenile Hall. After Juvenile Hall, I knew that it would somehow represent that experience, but I wasn’t sure how. I was on the search for some other image entirely when I found the butterfly image on the pages of a magazine I’d already been through three or four times before without ever noticing it. The colors were perfect for my page, and so was the symbolism. I knew immediately how the page was going to look then, down to the snipped wires freeing the captive butterfly.
As I composed the words to accompany that image, I finally came to understand what all my discomfort was leading to. I had limited myself in my original definition of myself as a teacher, and I came crashing headfirst into those limitations during our class in Juvenile Hall. My discomfort was the discomfort of imminent change, because I would have to change if I was going to truly teach anybody the value of creative journaling. I was still thinking of myself as a conduit of information, merely repeating what I had learned elsewhere. If I want to be truly effective as a teacher then I need to become a creative source myself, to dip into the wealth of my own knowledge and experience and offer it up as inspiration for others.
Is it any wonder I balked? Change of that magnitude is pretty intimidating, and it would be very easy to run the other way right now. But it’s because I made these pages that I understand the problem in the first place…how can I abandon the opportunity to help other people find this same kind of understanding of their own issues, after having personally experienced such powerful demonstration? I don’t know yet how I’m going become this new sort of teacher, sharing these intangible lessons of creative journaling in a meaningful way, but I know I’ll be back in the classroom on Tuesday trying to figure it out. At least I know the question I need to answer now.
That’s a start.