Just the other day, I saw a former student of mine. I was working at the Resource Window, handing out toothpaste, razors and mail.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, breaking into a grin. “I got barred from the building.”
This particular student — I’m going to call him James for his privacy — smiles so frequently that had I not gotten to know him, I’d have thought it was something pathological with his cheeks. He’s the kind of person for whom giggling is punctuation. At about 6-foot-3, he outweighs me by an easy 80 pounds, but when I was in a room alone with him, or the four or five other homeless students who took my poetry class at Community Vision in Silver Spring, it was never his size I noticed. It was his willingness to be creative with a pen.
I felt protective of that creativity. I tried to treat it gently. Yet, for James to have been barred from the building meant that he had been anything but gentle. At the least, he had leveled a threat against someone. Just as likely, he had used his fists.
I taught poetry at Community Vision, an assistance center for the homeless, once a week for two years. At the same time, I was teaching writing classes at a university 50 miles north. In both cases, there were pressures on my students that I couldn’t see. Within both sets, I’m sure, there were fights with partners, illnesses and the loss of people they loved. But the pressures on my students at Community Vision felt larger: sleeping outdoors, hustling a few dollars, avoiding police, having their blankets stolen.
But if you saw my students on the street, in daylight hours, you’d have no idea where they had slept the night before. When I saw them in downtown Silver Spring, they weren’t standing on corners with cups. Most didn’t have wild, tangled hair or grime-darkened clothing. If you’d run into James, what you’d most likely have noticed was that sheepish grin — like a child trying to get one over on you, but willing to play along. A good sport.
And a willing student, too.
When I’d walk up to Community Vision, I’d find him standing outside with three or four other young men. If it was cold, they’d have on knit caps, their hands thrust into their pockets. Loitering, is what it was.
“James, you coming to class?” I’d say, and he’d grin — as if caught red-handed.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be in there.”
“How ’bout you guys?” I’d say to the others.
“What is it?”
“Writing poetry. About your own life. You can’t do it wrong.”
“Nah. Not me. Not me. Maybe next time, though.”
There was always a host of maybe-next-timers, who never next-timed. But James was true to his word, and after I’d staked out a table in one of the utility rooms, and set up notebooks and ballpoints, he’d find his way in, plop himself down, giggle and say, “So, what are we writing about?”
During our exercises, he’d stare deeply at the page, chuckle to himself and dig in with his pen in the manner of a focused eater. I’d often give students a prompt, then 15 minutes of silence to respond to it. Almost always, I’d be forced to cut the exercise short by saying, “Let’s stop where you are. It’s okay if you aren’t finished,” because invariably, no one was.
Then I’d ask if anyone wanted to share. Again, invariably, hands would rise. This has been the surprise of my career as a creative-writing teacher: Students, wherever I’ve taught, are excited to read what they’ve written. It has happened across all ages, all majors, but none with such enthusiasm as the pupils at Community Vision. As a student, myself, at the University of Wisconsin, I remember turning crimson just thinking of reading my work aloud.
But there is an earnestness in students volunteering to read their work. It might simply be a button I’ve pushed on a basic human instinct: In sharing their work, they seemed to be announcing that what they’d spent the past 15 minutes doing was intrinsically good. That putting pen to paper to write about what was happening inside their brains is a healthy endeavor — something their lives had, to that point, been missing.
The students at Community Vision wanted to make up for that absence as if they were making up for a Vitamin D deficiency, coming more to life as they did so. When I asked, “Who wants to read?” it was as if I’d said, “Who wants a trip to the Caribbean?”
Again, I don’t take credit for this. Life outside Community Vision is traffic noise, street grit and faces that, early in the day, are nothing but commuter-intensity, and later, the whimsy of the gainfully employed on lunch break. The classroom where I taught was a quiet place with books lining the walls. Often, before we assembled, staff members would shoo men from the chairs, their heads pitched ceilingward as they slept. The room was a sanctuary, certainly, but also a slate as blank as the page.
At first, I tried to structure these classes the way I structure my college classes. I’d bring in poems we could read as a group, then discuss. But many of my students hadn’t graduated high school, and some had spent time in special education. Though they always listened intently as someone read, I was met with silence when I asked about meter or word choice or even theme. The most frequent question I received was a student holding up his or her copy of the poem, asking, “Can I keep this?” Often, they returned the next week with that same poem, creased with folds and dirty at the edges from pulling it in and out of a crowded shopping bag. With my college students, the end of a class leaves with it a smattering of abandoned handouts. Though I know it shouldn’t, it always hurts my feelings a bit — something precious being treated carelessly.
Our discussions at Community Vision revolved around a search for a poem’s meaning. More often than not, the meanings that rose to the surface were the platitudes and bromides I would go to great lengths to avoid in my college classes, but that at Community Vision became an affirmation of the time we spent around the table. “He’s saying we’ll all be happier if we aren’t so selfish.” “It looks dark, but if you see what you really have, you should be grateful and happy.”
One of my difficulties was finding poetry that wasn’t overly chipper or that didn’t rejoice too heartily in the life of the housed. It seemed that everything I considered expressed an unrelenting joy at being in one’s own kitchen or being warm and dry in a bed. I felt responsible for my students’ mood and didn’t want them leaving that classroom under a cloud of Sylvia Plath.
So, I found poems that spoke to hard living but that sought at least a fragment of hope. I used “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits” by Martín Espada; “Blues,” “To Anita” and “Poem No. 8” by Sonia Sanchez; and “April Rain Song” by Langston Hughes, a beautiful poem I couldn’t resist on a rainy Wednesday, though the speaker does, indeed, seem to luxuriate in being warm and dry.
Finally, I began searching for poems written by homeless people. These were the most successful. Though some of the poems were moving, I wouldn’t have taught them in a college classroom. Often, the language was more emotional than crafted, giving the lines a simplicity I generally urge my students beyond.This is the start of a perfect day. / The city is just ten miles away. / And i think of the joy a nice walk brings. / To the heart of a boy as the blackbird sings.
But after teaching at Community Vision for a year or so, simplicity of language was beside the point. The poems were inspirational. That my students might have their own writing in print was the source of great excitement. And we did, ultimately, print a literary zine, Visions and Voices, that came out in four volumes.
It was a heady time, when those little journals started coming off the press (I use the term “press” loosely here — the zines were “published” in my basement). We started selling them at a coffee shop (and made 18 bucks … enough for another half-dozen editions), and there was talk of staging a poetry reading. But before we could iron out the details, our numbers began to dwindle. I was used to having between four and seven students each week, then suddenly I had two. One student was arrested. One student no one has heard from since. Another called to say she was fighting cancer again. James was barred from the building. A couple of weeks later, I showed up to an empty classroom.
When I saw James in the Resource Window just the other day, he asked me, “You’re not having class anymore?”
“Nobody’s here,” I said. “Everyone disappeared.”
“Yeah,” he said, the smile leaving his face. “I know.”
Benjamin Warner teaches writing classes at Towson University. His first novel, “Thirst,” is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing. To comment on this story,e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.