Friday, April 4, 2008

Party Animals in Mattapan

We started coaching this week in Mattapan. With the Memoir Project, we spend four weeks doing a straight writing workshop in which we give them notebooks and pens on the first day and then do writing prompts--two or three per week, every week. They write in class for fifteen minutes at a time and then they share what they've written with the group. 

The challenge during these first weeks is keeping the energy in the room high enough so that they want to keep going. That means encouraging people to read out loud even if they are nervous about sharing, which they all are. They all come into the class saying, "I don't have anything interesting to say. Nothing interesting ever happened to me." And by the end, well, they won't sit down. They want to read all the time. And that's the idea.

Bolder characters always emerge in those first four weeks. There are people who want to take over the class or who want to start talking about issues. And that becomes a secondary challenge, keeping the class on track. In Mattapan, one woman wrote about having been adopted by a family as an adult. She'd been an orphan all her life, then she moved to Philadelphia, met a woman at church who became her best friend, just instantly. Then the friend's family adopted her. Amazing, amazing story. But then she said, "I spend so much money on telephone bills." And just as instantly, the class erupted into a debate about how to get the cheapest long distance rate. Eighteen people shouting over each other about different calling plans. It was all I could do to get them back to their notebooks.

During the coaching phase, other challenges emerge, mostly interpersonal issues. How can we turn the stuff in your notebook into an essay? How can I edit your work and ask questions to get the level of detail we need here without offending you or writing it for you? There are even deeper issues. At some point in an hour long conversation about someone's personal life, he or she stops being a participant and starts to become someone else. On Weds, I worked with Mary who talked about her experiences moving into a nearly entirely white neighborhood in Mattapan, one in which the neighbors were openly hostile to her family. She and her husband and children endured four years of harassment and vandalism and threats before they moved out, to another section of Mattapan, one that had already become integrated. But then she was talking about her husband of more than forty years who recently became ill and died. She talked about the surgeries she's facing, about her failing eyesight, about being let go from her job, about the new and higher property tax bill that arrived in the mail, and her struggles with the bureaucracy over that bill.

I hear these stories every session. The losses these seniors cope with, the isolation, the encroaching poverty that they endure and fear, seems overwhelming. At one point Mary said, "My neighbors are worried about me. They think I need to get out." I realize that her friend has been bringing her here for the past six weeks to get her out of the house. Mary has been one of the participants who has stood to read and to tell her stories every week, stories about how she met her husband, about her grandmother's curio cabinet, and about those tough early days in Mattapan, about her political activism in the 70s. Then Mary brightened. "We should have a party at the end of this," she said. "We should keep this going." I'm ashamed to say that my first thought was, "I don't know." I have my life to get back to. I have stuff to do, important stuff, I thought. But Mary was already talking about the different kinds of food people could bring, vegetarian lasagna, and curried goat. And she was ready to start a committee for refreshments. She won me over, and when I brought up the idea to Sheila, our representative from the city, she said, "That would be great. Can you imagine the food they'd bring if it was a potluck?" 

Party on, Mary from Mattapan.

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