A troupe of teen actresses telling their stories through writing and performance

Welcome to the Girls Surviving blog. We are creating this blog to reflect on the process we use in our work with teenage girls. We are two artists, Paula and Carolyn, who have been teaching writing, theater, and storytelling for many years. We are also mothers of daughters who had a hard time navigating their teens. We believe they would have benefited from a program that provided them with a safe place to talk about what it's like to be a teenage girl and to discover their unique artistic voices. Seven years ago, we began to form a troupe of teen girls who, we thought, could write and perform plays based on the experiences that inform their lives. Since then, we've watched the girls in the Girls Surviving troupe begin to take control of their lives with self-confidence and courage. We are writing to parents, teachers, counselors, and other artists who interact with girls in the hope that this blog will raise awareness of and open conversations about the lives of girls who are growing up in our complicated times.

“I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself as not a survivor but as a girl surviving.”

Friday, December 14, 2012

Playwriting and the Bonding Process

She rearranged herself in the chair and faced her questioners. 
“Your name is…?”
“Jami,” she quickly replied.
 “And how old are you, Jami?”
 “I don’t have to answer that,” she laughed.  “Only kidding,” she added before the questioner could interrupt; then she started calculating out loud.  “Let’s see, I was…20, right, 20 when I had Angelina…that would make me…35.  Yes, I’m 35.” 

This was the beginning of a character interview, an improvisational acting technique used in Girls Surviving workshops to help the writers develop back-stories, or personal histories, for their characters. In the exercise one girl pretends to be a character in a scene the group is writing while the rest of the troupe asks her questions about her life.  As the actress improvises answers, in character, the girls develop a better understanding of this character’s motivations.

The girls who participated last week were familiar with the process; it flowed easily and the girls learned a lot about Jami.  The actress playing her was very concentrated.  She started the interview by sitting in the chair as her character might, and she stayed in character while she tried to figure out what age Jami should be. In this way, she made the character instantly believable.  The girls asking the questions stayed on task too.  As the interview proceeded, they increasingly challenged the actress to think more deeply about the woman she was playing.

The character’s story gradually unfolded.  Jami had served fourteen years of a 20-year prison sentence for manslaughter. “They say it was accessory to a murder,” said Jami, “but I’m innocent.” She didn’t blame her court-appointed lawyer for the guilty verdict, though, because, “What could he do?  They found a gun in my car.  I picked it up.”  When she entered prison, she left behind a one-year-old daughter, Angelina, and a loving, but troubled, husband.  She hadn’t seen them since, and she was pretty sure Angelina didn’t know anything about why she was gone. When asked if she thought she would get out of prison early for good behavior, she said she would have to admit her guilt for that to happen.  She said, “No, I don’t believe in stuff like Karma” when one girl asked, “Do you believe in coincidence…that you in some way deserved this?” Another girl wanted to know if she now believed she had committed the crime because she had been told “over and over” that she had.  Sadly, she answered, “I’m not sure any more.”

The character that emerged from the interview is powerless and isolated. Trapped by circumstances beyond her control, she is becoming confused and unsure of herself. While the writers may alter some details about her life as they develop the scene, these essential truths about her will not change because Jami embodies an archetype that resonates so deeply for these adolescent girls. 

Powerless, trapped characters like Jami return in one guise or another often in the plays produced by Girls Surviving. These characters sometimes hide behind the secrets they keep. Sometimes they feel silenced by their troubled personal lives or isolated because of their race, class or age.  In a play written years ago, Alone I Cry, the character Taylor, a wealthy but affection-starved rich girl, sums up those feelings this way: 

“I’m trapped in a box, wrapped like a package with the glitter of my race, clothes, my parents’ jobs.  Everyone’s so sure they know what I am; no one bothers to take off the wrapping and look inside.  And from here inside, it’s hard to breathe.  I’m suffocating.”

Circumstances force a few uneasy alliances between characters throughout Alone I Cry but no fast friendships develop. When all the characters come together in the last scene for mandatory group counseling, they struggle to break out of the symbolic prisons that isolate them.  The plays ends with each character standing alone, each reciting a single line of the poem from which the play title was taken:

“Alone I Cry.  Someone hear this voice that’s deep inside.  Though tears go away, can’t anyone notice I’m broken.  Cold and heartless.  That’s all I ever encounter.  I’m screaming for help.  Can’t you see.  Why can’t everything for once be all about me?”

The teenage characters in this play may not be in prison, like Jami, but they are, nevertheless, walled in by their loneliness and their fear of reaching out to others.

The subject matter of Girls Surviving plays is often tough, but the process of writing it helps the girls in the troupe acknowledge, confront, and talk about those issues that prevent them and those they know in real life from reaching out to others.  The year that Alone I Cry was written, the girls had a particularly difficult time bonding, and the play reflects their problems getting to know and trust each other. By speaking through their characters, they found the courage to explore the personality traits in their group that threatened to stonewall the bonding process that year. Moreover, creating the characters together, as a group, helped them break out of their own shells. It distanced them from their personal real-life problems in a way that allowed them to see each other more objectively. As a result, they learned to appreciate each other’s differences and unique contributions to the process. While the play itself provided only a glimmer of hope that the characters would find a way out of their isolated lives, the actual Girls Surviving group writing experience helped our real girls reach hands across the stage and take a bow together at the end of the school year.  Like the characters they create, the girls in Girls Surviving are trying to step out of their silence, discover their voices, and practice ways to connect.  Joining forces to write their play helps with this struggle.

As the current troupe members develop the scene between Jami and her 15 year-old daughter, Angelina, they, too, will engage in the struggle.  Using the characters of mother and daughter to speak for them, they will grapple with the feelings of isolation and distrust that dominate their landscape.  They already have decided that communication is essential between Jami and Angelina, but that it must be through letters. With each letter exchange, Jami and Angelina may inch closer together or grow further apart, depending on what they reveal and how they reveal it.

            After the character interview last week, each girl in the room wrote a letter from one character to the other. One, from Angelina to Jami, captures the daughter’s contradictory feelings about connecting with her mother.  The letter starts by rejecting Jami’s attempt to reach out:  “I’m glad you went to jail.  I hope you rot and die…I never want to see you.  Stay away from me.  Never talk to me again or send any of those pitiful excuses for a letter.”  It ends, however, with a heartfelt plea for a mother’s love:  “…Mama…I want you to hold me so dear and close, to kiss my puffy cheeks when I’m sad.  Snuggle me in love in a heartbreaking moment.  Whisper in my fire hot ears when I’m stressed and tell me everything will be okay….”  The little girl still living in the 15 year-old body of Angelina wants to trust while the older, experienced adolescent Angelina is angry and confused.

Will Angelina and Jami ever meet?  Will they embrace?  Or, will something happen that forces them even farther apart?  The girls have much work to do.  But they, as others have, will come away from the experience understanding each other better, united by the work they have done and, nurturing a voice that is all their own.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Teaching Moments

A few summers ago, the troupe was working on a script about a character who had been hurt by bullying, a girl whose physical disability made her an easy target. One morning, as we began to write, one of the girls picked up a note that had been tossed onto her desk. She opened it, looked at the tosser, and sort of smiled. The girl sitting next to her grabbed the note, read it, laughed and passed it along. In a few seconds, all the girls on one side of the circle were laughing about something that the girls on the other side knew nothing about. 
Carolyn, Karen, and I looked at each other.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You know,” Carolyn said to the girls, “the rest of us aren’t in on the joke.”
“It's making me uncomfortable,” I added.
One of girls laughed. “Would everyone feel better if we shared it?”
“That depends on what it is,” Karen said.
The girl who had spoken was already up and heading for the front of the room.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Right, Elaina?” She looked at the girl who had originally received the message.
Elaina* shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with this,” said Carolyn.
“Is this really alright with you, Elaina?” I asked.
But by that time, the girl at the front of the room was reading the note aloud. It said something about a boy on whom Elaina had a crush, nothing nasty, but the comment cast some dispersion on Elaina's taste in men. When the note was read aloud, the girls who had been snickering roared with laughter. Elaina was smiling broadly, but neither Carolyn nor I believed her.
“Why is this okay?” I asked.
“Because we’re all friends,” one of the girls answered.
“Because Cheryl and Elaina have been, like, inseparable b.f.f.’s since they were in diapers,” said another. “Elaina knows she didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Is that right, Elaina?” Carolyn asked.
“Yeah,” said Elaina, blushing.
Now, all of the adults in the room knew that it wasn’t right. We also knew, as did the girls, that Elaina might be sensitive about her crushes. We knew it because during one of our earlier workshops, she had shared a story about being teased and bullied about a crush. I looked around the circle. Some of the girls were still smiling, seemingly oblivious to the breach of trust and lack of sensitivity they had just witnessed or participated in. Others looked uncomfortable. It was a critical moment in the workshop, a time when it might be possible to make the girls aware that some of the behaviors in which they and their peers thoughtlessly engage are cruel. In this case, regardless of what Elaina said, she must have been mortified by her friends’ actions. Girls whom she trusted were exposing her to the same kind of ridicule that she had suffered in one of her most excruciating moments. However, we also knew that we, the adult mentors, couldn’t teach that lesson. A lecture from one of us would embarrass the girls involved, but they would most likely deal with their embarrassment by telling themselves that we didn’t understand the dynamic in acts between friends. Also, our further intervention would just make Elaina more uncomfortable. We had expressed our disapproval. More talk from us wouldn’t make it stronger.

One of the lessons that Carolyn and I have learned from our work with girls in the troupe is that they don’t expect adults to understand them, and they don’t respect adult judgments in matters of moral responsibility when they differ from their own and those of their peers. A conversation we had with the girls just this past summer illustrates this point. The summer play, Selective Truths, presented four scenes in which the teen characters kept serious secrets from their friends, parents, and teachers. At least one of the character’s secrets could have had deadly consequences.
During a discussion about how to end the play, we asked, “Shouldn’t one of the characters say or do something to invite adult intervention?”
All of the girls were adamant. “No,” they said, “because it’s not realistic.”
“That’s like what might happen in a TV drama about teens,” said one of them, “but it’s not how teenagers really act.”
 “Right,” said another girl, “we might talk to friends, but not to an adult. That just complicates the problem.”
The adults in the room, of course, knew that this wasn’t strictly true. The serious problems of teenage girls: drugs, pregnancy, sexual abuse, eating disorders, are frequently complicated because teens don’t seek adult intervention. But we knew that it would do no good to point that out in the discussion. We also feel strongly that the girls should have artistic control over the material they write and perform, so we acquiesced to their decision about the play’s ending.

The situation I described above was different because it wasn’t theoretical. We weren’t talking about how fictional characters would act, we were faced with the question of how real people should act. At stake were, not only Elaina’s feelings, but also the trust we are trying establish between all of the members of the troupe, teens and adults. This did not change the fact that more talking by adults wouldn’t change anything and, in fact, might make the matter worse, but it did make us feel that it was urgent to address the problem before it got swept under the rug by other workshop activities.
We were saved, as we often are, by one of the girls. In this case, it was Ebony who put the situation into its proper perspective. Ebony was a high spirited sophomore whose jovial chatter during workshops kept us all laughing. She was not among the group who was in on the joke at the beginning of the discussion, and when she first heard it, she laughed out loud. As the discussion progressed, however, she grew silent, listening and observing. At last she said,
“I don’t know. If this was happening to me, my feelings would be hurt.” She pursed her lips and shook her head.  “I’m just sayin’.”
The other girls grew silent. Cheryl, again, protested that it was all in fun, but she seemed less confident. Some of the other girls acknowledged that the joke was not “alright.” Now, Carolyn, Karen, and I could agree that it would have hurt our feelings, too. That, in fact, similar jokes had hurt our feelings when we were teens. The talk didn’t last long. No one wanted to linger over the issue, but we could move on knowing that it had not been allowed to slip by unmentioned.

It sometimes happens in our workshops that we see the girls behaving contrary to the subject of their writing. Once, when we were writing a play about exclusion, a group of girls were systematically leaving one of their troupe mates out of their lunch time chatter. Another time, when we were writing about racism, the girls caught themselves referring to certain ethnic groups in the community as “them.” This behavior isn’t confined to teenagers. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that we all occasionally fall short of our own moral expectations. The questions remains, what to do when we see it happening. These are ‘teaching moments,’ times when an incident demands diversion from the agenda to focus on the topic at hand. What Carolyn and I have discovered is that we are learners as well as teachers at these moments, and that part of the trust we should be building is our own trust that one or more of the girls will rise to the occasion and address the issue.

*girls' names are pseudonyms 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Creating a Bond: the Carolyn and Paula Partnership

Like many others, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen during the Thanksgiving break.  One night when I was chopping broccoli my thoughts turned to Girls Surviving.  As I fell into the rhythm of the work, I realized how much I missed the group.  Sandy had disrupted the flow of the fall workshops; now, with Thanksgiving, we were separated again.  What a coincidence, I thought, that the girls chose to explore the issue of separation in their play at a time when interruptions in our schedule made it difficult for us to meet, let alone bond or develop play ideas.  Luckily chopping vegetables relaxes me, so I was not inclined to panic about how little time we had to write a play and get it on its feet for an audience.  I did, however, immediately start planning for our next workshop!

Writing individually about what separates people and what unites them sounded like a good way for us to reconnect as well as re-focus attention on the play.  Recent experiences had prompted me to think a lot about the issue. I had heard the stories, of course, about the ways in which the storm had turned lives upside down. My own life changed for a time too.  Friends of ours who were displaced from their home stayed with us for a week. We knew it must be awful to feel homeless, even temporarily, so we wanted our friends to feel as comfortable as possible.  With our children grown and out of the house, though, my husband and I were used to being alone and had to change a few of our living patterns to make our guests feel welcomed. They had to adapt to some of our ways of doing things too. Our time together served as a reminder of how much is required to bring people together under the same roof.  Because all of us were willing to give and take, listen and respond to each others’ needs, allow for privacy one moment and share a meal together the next, our appreciation for each other deepened and our friendship was enriched. What had torn their family from their home had brought us closer together as friends.

What the girls wanted to write about was complicated, I realized.  Sometimes separation is necessary to bring people together.  When we’re angry, time apart allows for reflection that can lead to healing.  Too much togetherness can foster co-dependence that threatens to undermine the unique gifts each person brings to a relationship.  Thinking about this, I was reminded of my last post about Phyllis and her words of wisdom regarding lasting relationships: they need patience, time, effort and attention to grow.  I was excited about hearing what the girls would contribute to a discussion of these issues. What they said might help create the bond that was essential to our collaborative work. 

As all of these thoughts converged on my brain, the telephone rang.  It was Paula.  I had been wondering how she was doing.  She had been so busy with family and work that she finally had succumbed to a cold, so we hadn’t talked in a while.  “Hey,” she said, when I picked up the phone, “what are we going to do at our next workshop?”  “Well,” I laughed, “funny you should ask….”  We settled into a comfortable conversation.  Afterward, while I put my broccoli into the steamer, I began to think about my relationship with Paula and how we had learned to partner.  That, too, is a story about bonding.

When we first envisioned the Girls Surviving program, we knew it could not become a reality without strengthening our own relationship and developing strong connections with others who were interested in our work. One reason we’ve overcome the challenges we’ve faced along the way is that we’ve confronted them together, not alone, and welcomed help beyond our two-person collaboration.  As a result, the “we” of Girls Surviving today is an ever-expanding circle of people who share the same dream.

It all started, though, with our partnership, and that has taken time to develop. I knew a lot about collaborating when we started out but not much about partnering.  Collaboration becomes part of the bloodstream for theater people like me. Theater collaborations, though, generally last only as long as the run of the play, and we wanted our partnership to endure into the future. The only really long-lasting collaboration I could compare the partnership to was my marriage and, while it was still vital after 43 years, it took a lot of time to keep it that way. Paula and I began to joke that maybe our relationship would be like our marriages. What exactly were we getting into? We weren’t really sure.

As we’ve mentioned, we didn’t know each other very well when we started this journey and there were times when the road ahead looked so rocky we thought we might be heading straight for a dead end.  Only a committed, trusting, respectful partnership can push through rough terrain for the long haul, and we knew that the instant bond that was formed when we first talked about our daughters was only a first step in that direction.  As a next step we simply needed to spend more time together.

Over the years we have spent endless hours talking, eating lentil soup in Paula’s kitchen in the winter and salads on Carolyn’s porch in the summer.  We’ve talked of birds, books, and where to get the best Indian food in the county.  We’ve laughed and cried and argued about politics. Recognizing our similarities has given us great pleasure.  Of course, it is always rewarding to find people who share so many of the same interests. It has been exciting, too though, to discover our differences and the ways in which they compliment each other and combine to enrich the work we do with the girls. The unique interests, backgrounds and skills we each bring to the program keep it feeling fresh.  Our free floating conversations have helped us learn these things and given us insights into how to communicate so that when we turn to the business of Girls Surviving, we know how and when to speak about pressing issues.  Most important, knowing each other well has helped us develop trust, which, I believe, forms the foundation of lasting relationships.

As happens when any two people are getting to know each other, however, we’ve had misunderstandings and come away from unsettling conversations feeling frustrated or upset.  We’ve worked through the tough times, though, because we’ve believed that we would find ways to get beyond our disagreements and been patient with our efforts. Patience and mutual respect have helped us listen more carefully and learn to speak openly about what’s bothering us.  Over time, too, we’ve learned to be more sensitive to each other’s feelings and appreciate each other’s individuality.

Is the relationship perfect? Obviously not.  No relationship is perfect. Is it like a marriage?  Sort of.  The knowledge we’ve gained from being married most likely has helped us understand the importance of trust and loyalty to our partnership.  Built on trust, the personal bond that unites us as we pursue our dream celebrates that which we have in common and embraces the unique qualities that make us separate people. Is our bond a work in progress?  Always.  Every day we discover something new about the other. It may be something that instantly brings us closer or it may be something that requires us to step back, reflect, and listen more carefully to what the other has to say. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Back Story: Growing Support

Phyllis Hassard and Dr. Gallagher  at NJ PAC
with senior Girls Surviving  troupe members
A week before Thanksgiving, a dozen teen age girls sat in a circle of desks and listened intently as a woman of their grandmothers’ generation talked to them about love. As Carolyn said in her last post, the woman, Phyllis Hassard, has become a mentor and role model to our girls. When she announced that night that she would talk about the difference between love and infatuation, one of the girls said, “Wait, I need to write this down,”  and they all went in search of pens and notebooks. As Phyllis spoke, the girls scribbled away like students taking notes for a final exam, careful to record every word that might help them better navigate waters in which some of them are already foundering.

Giving teen girls the opportunity to meet people like Phyllis Hassard is one of the strengths of the Girls Surviving  program. The story of how Phyllis ended up at one of our workshops is an important part of the program’s history.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, the Girls Surviving program began with an idea spun out by Carolyn and me during a long car ride. When we got the program up and running, we were pretty much on our own. We worked for free and paid for workshop supplies out of our own pockets. My first funding requests, to organizations with which I was working at the time, were unsuccessful. A stream of public funding was unavailable because our location didn’t meet its requirements; another nonprofit organization felt that we weren’t serving enough girls to justify its help.
Unwilling to give up the dream, we turned to others among our professional connections who might have ideas that would help. Among these were the staff of the Arts Council of the Morris Area.  One autumn morning, about three months after our first House workshop, Carolyn and I met with Carolyn Ward, at that time the Arts Council’s executive director. Also at the meeting were Barbara Reuther, director of education, and Anne Dodd, finance director. We described the work we were doing with the girls at the House, and brought samples of the girls’ writing for them to read. These three women immediately saw the program’s potential and promised to do what they could to support it. Since that day, the Morris Arts Council has been one of Girls Surviving’s strongest advocates. They not only help us find funding and administer program finances, they attend performances, visit workshops, and help us keep a video and photographic record of  the program’s history.
Another place we looked for help was the Morris County Community Foundation. Through the Foundation, Carolyn was put in touch with Dr. James Gallagher. Jim was interested in helping a program that served teen girls for much the same reason that Carolyn and I had decided to create one. Like us, he had daughters of his own and he, too, had seen the lack of resources available to young women during their critical teenage years. He said he would like to attend a workshop to see, first hand, the kind of work we were doing.
I have to admit that I didn’t have much hope for the outcome of that site visit. Chances were that very few girls would attend and, since at that time in the program’s development, our turnover rate was high, it was likely that at least one of those girls would be a first-timer, too insecure to participate in activities. The person who would be able to see the program’s potential at one of our early workshop would need to be wise and insightful, and to have experience working with teens at risk. It was a tall order to fill.
On the night of the site visit, three girls showed up. Jim Gallagher was accompanied by the director of one of our non-profit partners, and a House staff member was also in attendance. With all of those adults in the room, the girls were outnumbered, two to one. It was a little like teaching in a fishbowl. I told the Grimms’ tale of Rapunzel and Carolyn led the girls in a drama exercise related to the story. The girls discussed and wrote about the metaphors in the story: the tower and its prisoner – a girl connected to the world by only a single braid of her long, long hair.  When we talked with Jim after the workshop, he was enthusiastic. As luck would have it, wisdom, insight, and experience are three qualities that Jim Gallagher has in abundance. He understood what we were trying to do, and agreed that with time, patience, and financial support, we could create a program that would help a generation of girls find their voices and gain the confidence to make themselves heard. So, after that night, he agreed to help fund Girls Surviving.

Financial resources are essential to the existence of a program like Girls Surviving. A program needs money to hire and keep a skilled and dedicated staff, to subsidize its administration, and to purchase the supplies necessary for program activities. However, we have learned that funding is not the only thing a program gets from its funders. Carolyn and I have been fortunate in finding partners who understand and share our vision. The support of the Morris Arts Council and of Jim Gallagher made our Girls’  Group idea a reality, not only because they offered us financial support, but also because their belief in us gave us confidence that we could make the program a success.
Carolyn and I are teachers and artists. Both occupations are hard to assess from the inside because they are all about process. Even an artist’s end product – a story, a painting, a play – is part of the process of honing the craft. In addition, most of an artist’s work is done in seclusion – in a studio or at a desk, where there is little opportunity for getting feedback on progress. You are so close to the work that you lose perspective, and sometimes it is hard to tell if what you are doing has any value.
Teaching is also all process. Children are works in progress, so the day-to-day effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to assess. There is hardly ever a time when you can sit back and admire an accomplishment because every success (and every failure) is just a step along the journey. We often never know how, or if, we have helped our students.
One gift that our financial supporters give us is the encouragement that what we’re doing is worthwhile. As outside observers, they see the work in way we cannot, and their willingness to subsidize it is an affirmation that they see its value. In addition, these particular supporters, the Arts Council and Dr. Gallagher, have become hands-on partners in the development of the program. Through the years, we have relied on them for advice and support beyond program financing. They have developed personal relationships with Carolyn and me, as well as with some of our girls.

Last spring, Jim invited our senior girls to attend a dinner and performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The event was a fundraiser for Covenant House, another charity supported by the Gallagher family. It was an elegant evening and a wonderful experience for our girls. At this event, we were introduced to Jim’s friend, Phyllis, the Phyllis who has had such a powerful influence on our girls!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pre-Thanksgiving Treat: A Guest at the GS Table

Silence can be a lonely place.  A baby enters the world with a lusty cry for a reason.  Giving voice to her need is essential to her “surviving.”  The more effective her communication, the more gratifying the response she elicits.  Voicing need gives her power.  Learning how to use her power wisely over time leads to a better understanding of herself and others.  With that wisdom, she goes off into the world to gather experiences and form relationships that will help her grow.  Adolescence throws her off course, as Paula mentions in her last post.  She stumbles around in the chaos of hormonal fluctuations and mixed signals, loses sight of who she is and falls silent. She is no longer sure of what she needs, so her ability to express herself is compromised.  As a result, her stable foundation of relationships, interests and pursuits begins to feel unsteady.

Girls Surviving offers experiences that nudge her out of her silence. It can help reunite her with her fledgling selfhood and guide her into a future of possibilities that includes strong, healthy relationships. In previous posts, we’ve discussed the ways in which literature, discussion and writing have called forth the girls’ voices and allowed them to rediscover the power they have to bring about positive changes in themselves and their community.  The program encourages girls to see the world through many different lenses, to hear and understand different points of view so that they will speak with greater wisdom. 

Inviting a variety of talented, caring role models into Girls Surviving workshops is one way the program works to broaden the girls’ understanding of the world. Professionals in dance, theater and storytelling have led workshops, for example. High school and college students of theater have stopped by to lead exercises.  As a result of their exposure to different voices, the girls were well prepared to listen intently when we told them a guest speaker was coming.  Phyllis first came to speak to them last summer, and she was supposed to come again the week that Sandy decided to upstage her.  Let me say that only a storm as powerful as Sandy could possibly steal the limelight away from Phyllis.  She has left a lasting impression on our girls and they were very excited when they heard that she had rescheduled her visit for Nov. 15.

On both of her visits, Phyllis captivated the girls’ attention with her personal story.  It is a story that traces her confrontation with and victory over life’s harsh realities. She described in detail her struggle to find a path beyond adversity, her triumphs as well the compromises she had to make along the way, and her eventual success and happiness.  She offered the girls hope that they, too, could confront and overcome obstacles to their success and happiness, and when she finished speaking they rushed to share their own stories of personal struggle.  Phyllis’s authenticity had won them over.

Phyllis’ message about meeting life’s challenges with courage, confidence and persistence inspired many of the girls to make positive choices about how to move forward with their lives. After her first talk, some made commitments to work for better grades; others decided to go on to college after high school, and still others made career choices that would assure their economic freedom. One of our girls had an interview for a prestigious leadership program open to teens in the tri-state area the day after Phyllis first spoke to the group.  When asked who her role model was by the interviewers, she told them without hesitation that it was Phyllis.  “I told them she is my hero,” the girl said simply to us later.  A couple of days later, she bid us good-by, left the safety of the Girls Surviving circle, rode the train to New York City by herself and began a journey of her own as a participant in that program. We were thrilled to watch her set out on her own, proud, determined and fearles.

When Phyllis spoke to the girls again last Thursday, she included remarks about the subject of love.  She drew important distinctions between infatuation and real love, and after her talk, the girls wrote their reflections about what they had learned.  They seemed to agree that Phyllis’ words had changed their perspective about what it means to love.

Real love is not a destination, Phyllis said; it is a journey.  It requires time, attention and effort to help it grow.  It will not flourish unless each person in the relationship learns to speak out in a calm, thoughtful manner.  Clear, respectful communication is essential to its ongoing vibrancy.  While the focus of Phyllis’s remarks was romantic love, the same things could be said about sustaining all of the important relationships in our lives. 

As the Girls Surviving program moves forward this year, I believe the girls will come to realize that their sisterhood will need the same nourishing.  As they develop their ideas for a play about what separates people from one another, I think they’ll recognize the connections between Phyllis’s words of wisdom and the chosen theme of their play. As they make new friends, as they interact with old friends and family, as they explore their interests and work toward their goals, I believe they’ll remember to speak out clearly, calmly and respectfully.  One reason they’ll remember is because Phyllis changed their perspective about what it means to love.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Beyond the Looking Glass

It has been said that trying to live without literature is like trying to apply makeup without a mirror. Literature reflects life and provides us with images that guide our actions and help us understand the actions of others. By allowing us to live vicariously through the lives of characters, literature offers new experiences and fresh insights that can help guide us through our own life journeys. It’s hard for a life-long and (slightly) obsessive reader like myself to understand how anyone survives without stories and poems. Yet, as Carolyn said in her recent post, many of the young people we teach, girls in our troupe as well as teens we meet in other settings, do not have a background in literature. Not only do they not read plays, they don’t read much of any literature outside of school requirements. I don’t expect to meet many teenagers who are familiar with, or have even heard of, Jean Anouilh, but I am surprised that most kids don’t know the story of Oedipus and his children which, of course, form the background and subject of the play to which Carolyn referred.
The stories that form the foundation of any literature, the myths and folktales of the culture from which it arises, are generally unknown to many of the teens and young adults I meet. When I began teaching many years ago, I took it for granted that public school students in New Jersey would have heard Bible stories, fairy tales, Greek myths, and Mother Goose, but with the exception of the tales that had been popularized (and usually bowdlerized) in movies and television, I found that these stories were unfamiliar to my students. They missed allusions to them in the novels and poems they did read and, as a result, their understanding of assigned reading was deficient. Consequently, they thought reading was boring and books were irrelevant.
Everyone needs a foundation for their learning. A person with little or no knowledge on which to tack new information can’t make meaning of  new experiences. Imagine trying to understand an article about the illegal trade of ivory if you have no knowledge of elephants! It would be hard to understand what was at stake. In a similar way, knowing the foundational stories of a culture is an essential part of understanding its people and customs. And some stories, like myths and folktales, transcend cultural differences to become metaphors for every human experience. These are the stories that help us truly understand who we are.

So, as Carolyn said, we introduce literature into our workshops to help the girls understand themselves and the circumstances of their lives. Thinking and talking about literary characters like Hansel and Gretel or Ismene and Antigone, characters who are struggling through conflicts similar to those experienced by our girls, also allows the girls to see their own struggles more objectively. After all, they’re not talking about themselves any more, but about two children lost in a magical forest, or about two sisters in ancient Thebes. 

Because we felt that the girls needed some distance from their personal stories, we began the third workshop by skipping the “check in” and moving right to literature. The literary prompt we used was an Irish folktale called The Wild Geese. We presented the tale orally, telling it dramatically with gesture and character voices. This way of presenting a story makes it immediately accessible to every girl in the group, regardless of her reading fluency, thereby creating an even playing field for follow-up discussion and writing.
The story itself is a variant of a tale that appears in many cultures. In it, a group of brothers, cursed by the thoughtless remark of one of their parents, is transformed to a group of animals, in this case, the eponymous wild geese. To break the curse, their sister must forego speech and outward signs of emotion for a long period of time. The story details the sister’s suffering during the time she is unable to speak for herself or show how she feels,  and its resolution comes when she regains her voice.
We chose this story, in part, because the heroine’s plight is a metaphor for the social constraints that are often imposed on adolescent girls. Our girls – our daughters, our troupe members, and, I believe, most girls in our society begin school on an equal footing with the boys in their peer group. As little girls they are self-confident, enthusiastic, curious, and adventurous. However, by the time they reach middle school, girls begin to realize that society has different expectations of them than of their male classmates. As they enter their teens, girls begin to be judged more for their appearance than for their abilities. They are portrayed as sexual objects in popular media, and manipulated by the fashion industry to conform to an artificial and unrealistic ideal of femininity. Girls suddenly become unsure of their own worth. Like the sister in The Wild Geese, they become mute. As they lose their ability to communicate their real feelings about what they see and hear, their risk of falling under the power of destructive social forces increases. Some of them survive by conforming to social pressures to drink, use drugs, engage in sexual activity, and adopt the thoughtless behaviors necessary to maintain social status. Others find themselves alone – ostracized because they are too smart, not pretty enough, or from an unpopular family, race, or culture.

Analyzing the trials of the heroine in The Wild Geese offered our girls an opportunity to think and talk about the social pressures of modern girlhood without talking directly about themselves. As they wrote about what it was like for the sister to have so little control over her life, or about what motivated the characters who helped and harmed her, I hope that they also began to see that to have a voice is to have power. Because literature doesn’t just describe life, it can change life, and if our girls learn that they can speak up for themselves and their sisters, it will give them more strength to stand up to the pressures of their teen years.
I believe that the voice a girl discovers through her Girls Surviving experience will give her the confidence to speak up for what she believes and to disclaim the injustices she sees around her.  I also believe that the literature the Girls Surviving troupe writes and performs for their community make it a better place.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Adding Literature to the Mix

Sandy was whirling its way out of New Jersey when I started writing. I didn’t get very far with it.  Now, a couple of days later, with my power restored and yard clean up under way, I’m still finding it difficult to settle into old routines.  I see too much destruction too close to home to believe that because I have electricity now, my life will simply pick up where it left off.  Nature, once again, has humbled us, and we’ll need time to recover from the effects of the storm she sent barreling into our lives.

Girls Surviving won’t meet this week or, as of today at least, next week.  The schools are closed now because so many neighborhoods are still dark. Next week they’re supposed to be closed for the NJ Teachers Convention, but that could change because the convention is held in Atlantic City, the site of the eye of the storm. 

Whatever happens, it’s clear that we will be meeting again after a long, chaotic break.  Inevitably, we’ll need to shift agendas once more in order to process what has happened to us since our third session. I have no idea what that workshop will look like right now.  Perhaps we’ll simply need to talk and write in our journals.  Then again, we may need to turn to literature to help us understand how to cope with circumstances that seem beyond our control.

We devoted the summer of 2009 to an exploration of the same theme.  There was no storm that year to remind us of our fragility, but we knew we would be welcoming teenage girls into the program that summer who might be feeling fragile just because they were teenage girls trying out something new.  To help put them at ease with their decision to take a risk with this program, we decided to start the first day by introducing literature that spoke to the choices we make when we’re feeling confused, lost or powerless. 

That summer, as Paula explained in her last post, the program fully blossomed because so many dedicated voices united in an effort to make it a success.  Literature added its voice, too, to the chorus of girls, counselors and teaching artists that worked together to bring about this positive change. The literature that was introduced, the order in which it was presented and the manner in which it was used to prompt writing helped unite the girls around a theme that resonated for them personally and brought them together as a group.  It also inspired the writing of the play that gave them the freedom to safely articulate their thoughts and feelings. 

The play that summer was called “Lost,” and it was the story of Hansel and Gretel, told on the first day, that planted the idea for it. The story immediately propelled the girls into the playwriting process because it focused on the decisions we grapple with when our survival is at stake and we feel powerless in the face of imminent danger.  Plays are about conflicts and the decisions the characters make to escalate them or resolve them, so the story was a perfect fit for our process.

After the telling of the story and a discussion about its central themes, the girls wrote monologues for the characters that they thought faced difficult choices. In order to consider the reactions of characters in times of crisis, they most likely had to consider how they would react under similar circumstances.  Working as writers, they were consciously or unconsciously making connections between their feelings and those of their characters.  Character exploration gave them the means to get to know themselves a little better; sharing their monologues with the rest of the group allowed them to get to know each other better as well.  This process also helped them learn more about playwriting.  It prepared the girls for the monologue writing they would do later for the characters in their play. By exposing the girls to literature, then giving them a variety of opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings about what they heard, we helped the girls get to know each other and learn something about the playwriting process.

We built upon the work we did the first day by introducing a poem by William Stafford, called “The Day Millicent Found the World” on the second day. The poem is about a girl who finds herself lost and feels confused about what to do about it.  After reading the poem, we talked about how we lose our way, what it feels like to be lost and how we respond to those feelings.  Afterward, the girls transformed the personal reflections they shared in conversation into poems of their own, many of which they included later in the play.  The one below shows how the author’s feelings were impacted by elements in the poem and in the story of Hansel and Gretel.  The activities offered on day one carried over into the writing on day two:

Being lost is feeling scared
But it also feels like a challenge,
Whether you’re up to it or not,
Whether you’d sit and cry
Or stand up and find your way
Back from where you came.

After delving deeper into the theme of feeling lost through poetry, it was time to pursue it in the context of plays and playwriting.  My experience teaching playwriting outside of Girls Surviving has shown me that few kids this age know much about it because, sad to say, they rarely see or read plays.  Because of their lack of experience, teaching them how to write dialogue that moves the conflict forward can be challenging.  Reading literature, this time a scene from a play, gave the girls insights they needed to begin inventing characters and conflict dialogues that would carry their feelings to the stage. 

The choice was a scene between Antigone and her sister, Ismene, from the play Antigone, by 20th century French playwright, Jean Anouilh. In it, the sisters grapple with their different reactions to a life-altering experience and conflicting views about how to handle it.  Their encounter raises questions about who talks us through times of crisis - who helps us or challenges us or opposes us when we feel vulnerable.  Our discussion with the girls about the characters’ strained relationship took place the same day that our counselor had led them in a discussion about their own, sometimes strained, parent/child relationships. As a result of that coincidence, the scenes that were written that day contained elements of both discussions.  They reflected a marvelous intermingling of the personal and universal and they became centerpieces of the play.

Just as the barrier between the personal and the universal began to blur that day so did the barriers that separated the girls by age, race and economic status.  We had noticed that the girls were segregating themselves when they chose their seats in our circle, and we had been experimenting with ways to change that pattern.  We decided that one way to do it was to ask the girls to write in pairs, rather than individually.  Writing a dialogue in which two characters champion opposing views seemed like a perfect opportunity to try the plan, so we asked our student intern to pair the girls in ways that would break up any obvious cliques. In the end, girls who didn’t know each other very well at the time not only wrote together, but also rehearsed and performed their scenes together.

A mysterious interweaving of ‘voices’ that Paula recently described took place that day and a united troupe of writers and actresses was born.  Alongside teaching artists, girls and counselors, literature lent its voice to the mix.  It was a voice that had been growing stronger with each day and each successive literary addition.  It was a voice that spoke first with a story, got stronger with a poem and worked magic with a dramatic scene. Exposure to literature helped pave the way for the discussions, writing and sharing that eventually brought the troupe together. Will literature help us come together again this year?

Paula and I agree that we have no idea what the current troupe will look like in February or March, let alone, who will be able to join us when we finally come back together.  I see potential in each girl and the optimist in me continues to hope that they will connect and learn to work together over the next few months.  Kim, Karen, Paula and I will pool our skills and experiences to explore as many ways as possible to keep the group together, moving it forward with the work.  We’ll look to our troupe veterans for advice, too, and we’ll look to literature for words of wisdom and inspiration. 

The last time the group met we followed through with our plan to introduce literature.  Once again, a story created a stir of excitement, prompted thought provoking questions and inspired writing that surprises the reader with it’s depth of feeling and insights into human nature.  Literature has the power to stimulate the imagination, connect our little lives to forces in the world that are greater than ourselves, and bring us together in our common humanity.

For that reason we might need to read a poem, an article, a scene from a novel or a play the next time we meet.  There’s a lot that can happen between now and then. Who could have predicted that our group would be broken apart by a storm so soon after our first workshop?  Life seems a lot more unpredictable now than it did a couple of weeks ago. Turning to literature as well as to each other on Day 4 may help us reconnect, heal and find the strength to move forward one day at a time.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Learning to Weave

When Carolyn and I teach the techniques we’ve developed in Girls Surviving to teachers and students in other settings, we call our program ‘Tapestry’ because it involves the weaving of voices through collaborative writing and performance. I love this metaphor for the process we continue to refine through the Girls Surviving program because it provides for me an image of the collaboration between all of the people whose hearts, minds, and voices come together to make the program work. It is the intertwining of personalities and ideas that keeps Girls Surviving strong and vibrant. Each thread in the fabric represents the voice of someone in the troupe: a girl, a counselor, or a teaching artist. The ever-growing fabric is proof of the willingness on the part of each member to contribute to the troupe’s success.
However, when we begin a new season, as we did two weeks ago, the stuff on the loom doesn’t always look so great. There are gaps, loose threads, and knots. Even so, I can be reasonably sure that by the spring, the new material will be smooth and whole. How that happens is still a little mysterious to me. The thoughts that follow are an attempt to begin to understand and explain the phenomena.

Early into our first fall workshop, one of the new girls asked, “How is Girls Surviving different from (another) girls’ group?”
A veteran girl immediately answered, “It’s not so adversarial.”
Her remark was met by a barrage of protests from girls who had either had a good experience with or knew good things about other the group in question, a long running and excellent program.
 “Well,” said the veteran girl, “all’s I know is I didn’t last in there.”

This exchange started me thinking about how hard it is to predict which girls will find what they need in the Girls Surviving program. It’s really impossible to tell if it will fit without trying it on. On one hand, it seems like a no brainer that the girls we’re looking for are those who have, at least, an inkling that they would like to write and/or perform, but some of our most successful participants over the years came to us as non-writers or non-speakers. On the other hand, you would think that girls who don’t get along in other collaborative ventures, like sports and clubs, would also have a hard time fitting into the Girls Surviving troupe, but we are often surprised to learn that a girl who excels in our collaborative projects has been bounced from another program for her bad attitude. Of course, it’s just as surprising when a girl who sounds perfect for the program doesn’t succeed – isn’t interested or can’t adapt her behavior to meet the demands of our process. 

As I watched and listened to the girls at our second workshop last week, I wondered what the troupe will look like in February or March. Will the new girls stay? Will all of our veterans still be with us? As I said, the group dynamic changes with each new season. This month, twelve of the girls from the troupe that had grown so close this summer returned to discover that the group is not the same without our recent graduates. These girls are finding they must take on new roles and form new alliances. Then, there are the new girls, each of whom entered the program for her own reasons, each needing something that she hopes the program will provide, and each probably wondering if she’ll find it.

In the first years of the program, we worked with groups of girls who never completely meshed. These girls wrote, rehearsed, and performed successfully, and seemed to enjoy doing it, but they never found the courage or inspiration to form a cohesive troupe. At any break in workshop activities, they would wander back into their cliques or sit alone and talk with an adult. Neither the intense cooperation that goes into creating a group performance nor the various team-building exercises contrived by the counselors worked to break down whatever barriers existed between groups and individuals.
That dynamic changed in the summer of 2009. That summer we had a troupe. And we’ve had one ever since. I can’t point to one thing that made the difference, although I think the change was partly due to the natural growth of the program. It was the summer of our fourth year and word about Girls Surviving was finally beginning to spread on its own. Most of the girls who joined that summer came because they had been invited by a friend or because they had seen the troupe perform. The others were referred by our counselors who, by that time, had worked in the program, themselves.
That summer was also the year we began our ‘questions’ check in. I think this activity was the brainchild of our high school counselor, Karen. It’s a simple idea, and it has been a great first step in helping the girls get to know and trust one and other. On the first day of the summer program, girls are given small slips of paper and asked to write questions on them. The questions are used as discussion prompts for the first few workshops. They are anonymous and are usually about problems the girls are having or subjects they’re curious about but don’t feel comfortable introducing. The discussions that arise from the questions often give us material for our writing, but they also serve the important purpose of demonstrating to the girls that their problems, fears, and confusion are shared by others in the group. I think this quickly breaks down any barriers between girls that may be caused by stereotyping, hearsay, or first impressions. Also, because the subjects they introduce often lead to personal disclosures, the questions allow the introduction of the cardinal rule of group talk – What is said in Girls Surviving, stays in Girls Surviving. The veterans always explain this to the new girls, and make it clear that they take the responsibility implicit in the rule very seriously. As a result of these things, the conversations that come out of our opening questions begin to build the trust and consideration that is essential for our work and for the melding of the group.

As Carolyn said, we always have a plan for workshop activities, but we’re  willing to change directions when circumstances demand it. It frequently happens that our opening discussions introduce a subject that seems more pressing than the lesson we had planned, and it’s usually easy to change the focus of our activities to address it. However, sometimes a question or comment may give rise to information that, because of its personal nature is inappropriate for more intense examination. At these times Carolyn and I need to be able to refocus the group to avoid a disclosure that may be regretted later, or to prevent unnecessary discomfort to one of the girls. It is the kind of readjustment that Carolyn described in her recent post.
These moments occur at times of change, the times when we’re all figuring out how to mend the holes and untangle knots in the tapestry. The changes this fall have been great. The girls who graduated at the end of the summer were the core of the troupe that formed in the summer of 2009. They were the first girls who asked, “why can’t we meet more than once a week?” They were also the girls who pulled us through our rough spot last winter. Over the past four years, those girls were joined by others who are just as strong and committed to the troupe, so I have no worries that the weaving won’t progress smoothly once the girls figure out what they want the material to look like.

Every season, Carolyn and I watch for signs that the group is starting to mesh, to become a sisterhood. The term, sisterhood, has no bad connotations for me and I embrace it as a description of the Girls Surviving troupe. In my vocabulary a sisterhood is a group of girls and women who work together and support each other, stepping up when a gap appears in the fabric of their work, or stepping aside when they see that a sister needs or wants something more than they do. Last week our current group opened their lives to each other with little reserve, and listened to each other with respect and compassion. They took the first steps toward the creation of their new tapestry.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Day 2: Making Choices

As our last posts reveal, Paula and I had different reactions and responses to the girls’ buzzing chatter on the first day of Girls Surviving this fall.  As Paula explained, what she observed made her nervous because she worried that it signaled future discipline problems. Her response was to look to enforce rules.

I wasn’t particularly worried.  As I said in my post, I saw first day excitement, although I was aware that both newcomers and veterans projected worry and tension about how they would get along. I focused on watching the girls’ body language and attending to their conversations to find out as much as I could about who they were, why they had come and what motivated their behavior.  I was getting a sense of the group so that I could better judge how to bring them together as a united troupe. When the chatter began to interfere with making progress with the night’s agenda, I turned the girls’ attention to writing answers to our survey questions.  In general, my response when I sense restlessness in a classroom is to find ways to refocus attention on the work.

That is what I thought we should plan to do the following week. What I observed in the first workshop convinced me that a structured writing activity would help unite the girls by rallying them around a goal.  I also thought it would cut down on the chatter that worried Paula.

Paula and I are constantly making these choices, individually and together, about how best to lead the troupe and interact with the personalities in it. After discussing our reactions to the events of Day 1, we agreed about how to move forward on Day 2.  It was clear to both of us that the girls were ready to start the writing process, and we knew the best way to do that was to use literature as a writing prompt. We looked at some writing samples and settled on a scene from a play I thought captured the essence of the personal stories the girls had shared at our first workshop and the issues they said they wanted to write about.  We went into Day 2 with a plan to read, discuss and write.

Experience has taught us, though, that our planning needs flexibility. A full week passes between our workshops, and a lot can change in the lives of teenagers in a week.  We often alter our plans if a girl has had a bad day or if so few come that the lesson no longer seems relevant. Some good plans have ended up in the trash because we felt we had to respond to a change in circumstances.  We know we need to make choices in advance, but we’re always ready to make other choices on the spot.

As is sometimes our custom, especially when a new group is coming together, we began the second session with a check-in. As we went around the room sharing bits of news about the past week, the girls interrupted each other and joked as they had Day 1.  Although it was noisy, the girls seemed to be strengthening their ties by talking about people or places they all knew in the community. It looked like a healthy exchange.  Paula and I responded in a patient, congenial manner, taking turns gently nudging the discussion along from one girl to another to make sure everyone had a chance to participate.  

What happened next, though, changed the plan as well as the group dynamic.  After everyone had checked in, I was about to hand out scripts when we realized that we hadn’t asked if the girls wanted to read their writing from the week before. Like checking in, reading the previous week’s work has become part of our process.  Because their Day 1 writing was so personal, however, we didn’t think they would want to do it.  We were surprised when they said they did, but we changed course to allow that to happen. We realized that the rituals we’ve developed over the years - like sitting in a circle, checking-in and sharing writing – help create the comforting, safe environment that fosters trust.

As we went around the room again, some of the girls started telling about their writing rather than reading what they had written.  While that sometimes happens, we didn’t expect that a few would extemporaneously elaborate on the personal stories they had shared week before or say so much more about their lives. Soon personal stories tumbled out from many corners of the room, while noticeable silences fell from others.  We all knew this was a significant moment in the life of the troupe. These emotional stories obviously had been simmering below the surface and needed to be told. Everyone in the group was respectful and supportive of those who spoke.   Some, however, seemed quietly ill at ease.

Discussion of personal experiences is a very important component of the Girls Surviving program, and sometimes allowing personal storytelling to dominate is a necessary step toward bonding the group, as it was that night.  Not every person in the group, however, feels comfortable talking about their lives.
We have observed that eventually they all do unite, though, around the goal of writing and performing a play.

In an effort to hear all voices equally, I am more convinced than ever that we should turn to art for help next week.  What’s comforting about theater is that every writer and performer can speak out freely because each voice is camouflaged in a character and every experience is woven into the fabric of a plot. By introducing literature and writing next week, the girls will begin to focus their energies on transforming their personal experiences into stories for the stage and, in so doing, strengthen their personal ties through artistic collaboration.  We have seen this happen repeatedly in the last seven years.

Paula and I agree about how to move forward and are very determined to stick to the plan.  We’ve already decided to skip check-in and immediately plunge into the literature. Sometimes it’s necessary to keep with the plan, and Paula and I are united in our decision to refocus attention on the work.  Unless, of course….

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Passing the Baton

As Carolyn has written, our Girls Surviving workshop was buzzing on our first night back together since the end of the summer program. Veteran girls came in with hugs and ‘hi’s for everyone, and the three new girls expressed their nervousness in jokes and giggles. In fact, most of the girls seemed a bit nervous in the new mix, and I was nervous, as well. If you read my earlier post, you know there have been times when the mix of girls hasn’t worked together perfectly, and as I watched and listened to the girls on Thursday, I worried that we might be heading for trouble. For one thing, the girls weren’t listening to each other. They were fooling with cell phones, talking about school, laughing, and shouting. When a question arose, or when someone’s remark drew comments, the girls would all start talking at once. Some engaged in side conversations, others shouted responses to someone across the room, and still others just talked at everyone.
Carolyn and I have never consciously played “good cop; bad cop” with the girls, but if we did, I would definitely be the bad cop. I’m louder that she is, and I’m usually the first one to jump in the fray when things get out of hand. In situations like the one I describe above, I react by shouting over the ruckus and reminding the girls that we’re trying to have a conversation. In this case, I told the new girls (and reminded the veterans) about our cell phone rule (phones OFF and out of sight during  workshop activities) and I told them that they had to be aware that some of the things we would be talking about were serious, emotional topics for some people in the room. I reminded them that they had to listen carefully to what was said and watch people’s reactions to ensure that their own responses were thoughtful and sensitive to everyone’s feelings. I was happy when Kim, the counselor in the room on Thursday night, picked up that thread. For one thing, the new girls who had never met me or Carolyn knew her from school. Also, her role as the expert on emotional issues adds a different kind of weight to her comments on anything that touches the affective aspects of our work.  But even Kim’s remarks didn’t keep the volume down or focus the conversation for more than a few minutes.

This scenario made me nervous because it was familiar. As recently as last year, we had a problem so frustrating that Carolyn and I were tempted to shut down for a few weeks and resume with all new recruits. I’m not sure how the problems began last year. The group was larger than usual and I think that a few of the girls were coming to workshops simply to socialize. Although creating a safe and positive social environment is part of our mission, it’s not our only goal, and the socializing that was going on in those workshops was inappropriate. Girls talked through workshop activities, checked phones under the table when they thought we weren’t watching, and generally disregarded any attempt on the part of adults to refocus conversation or create silent writing time. We weren’t getting any closer to creating a script for the new play we hoped to perform at the end of the school year, and worst of all, Carolyn and I were beginning to dread going to workshops.
Almost every aspect of the Girls Surviving program has been fun for us. We enjoy planning together, spending time with the girls, and watching them grow as writers, actresses, and well-adjusted young women. We expect that some of them will, on occasion, fall into obnoxious teenage behavior, and we’re usually able to ignore it or redirect it as the case demands. Last year, however, it was too much. We were at our wits’ ends. We don’t want to spend our Thursday evenings setting down rules and constantly reminding the girls to follow them. And, for a few weeks, almost every girl was breaking contract for at least part of every workshop.
Once again, the counselors saved the day. Carolyn and I expressed our frustration to all three of the women who work with us in the program – Kim, Karen, and Renee. They put their heads together and came up with a strategy. They suggested that we invite only our high school seniors to attend the next workshop, that we tell them how we were feeling, get feedback on their perceptions of what was going on, and try to come up with a solution that would keep the current troupe together and get it back on track. I must admit that I was skeptical. The senior girls hadn’t been behaving differently from their younger troupe mates, and I didn’t see how talking to them would change that. But, I figured it was worth a try.
On the night we met, Carolyn was out of town, so four senior girls sat down with me and the three counselors. One of the counselors started the conversation by asking me to express my frustration to the girls. They listened intently and when I was finished, one of them shook her head and said, “That’s a shame.” After that, we had a remarkably productive discussion. The seniors acknowledged their part in the problem and resolved to be better models for the younger girls. They also told me that they thought I needed to take a stronger stand against any behavior that even hinted at disrespect. Then, with the help of the counselors, we came up with a plan to change the workshop dynamic. And it worked.
Seniors began taking an active role in planning and executing workshop activities, and they took it upon themselves to stop disruptive behavior among the younger girls. They became stern, but patient mentors for the youngers, talking to them in school between meetings and reminding them if they slipped during the workshops. It was a pure pleasure to watch them take control of themselves and their younger “sisters.”  A couple of girls did drop out of the troupe after that, but it was by their own choice. The script was written and the play, “Covered by Color," was rehearsed and performed with great success.

But last Thursday night, as I watched the chaos in the room, I realized that the senior girls who had been so effective keeping us on task last year had graduated, and I wasn’t sure that there was anyone to take their place. Then I saw one of our veteran troupe members, a sophomore, shake her head and frown at a girl who was talking out of turn. A few minutes later, another veteran whispered to one of the new girls, “this isn’t the time for that,” and in another few minutes the workshop was under control. Last year’s seniors had left a legacy. The girls whom they mentored have become mentors, themselves. I sat back in my chair and relaxed.