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.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Teach Your Children

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by,
And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well; their parent’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you’ll know by.

It’s hard being a parent. There is no good way that I ever found for figuring out how to do it right. You spend your children’s youth trying to figure out the rules as you go. To some extent, all of life is like this, but for parents there is more at stake. The souls of innocents are in our care; we are responsible for nurturing them, helping them grow strong and healthy, and providing them with defenses against the cruelties they will encounter in their lives.
In Girls Surviving, we have been talking and writing about parents and their teenage children. The girls created parent and child characters and wrote scenes of confrontation between them. While the scenes contain moments that feel true, they mostly read like soap opera or broad comedy. For this reason, after the girls wrote and shared their individual writing, Carolyn and I have put off asking them to craft collaborative scenes. Instead, we’ve encouraged them to come up with new family units and new conflicts in the hope that they would hit upon something that took their writing to a deeper place. Two weeks ago, we begin to get somewhere.
After reading some character monologues that had been written the week before, some one suggested that we just write about parents.
“Can we do it anonymously?” asked Cheryl.
There was a murmur of approval from the circle, and everyone began to write. At the end of the workshop, the girls tore their writing out of their notebooks, folded the pages, and tossed them into the center of the room. Carolyn and I divided the pages and typed them to be read aloud at the next workshop. The writing was powerful. And it was full of anger.

“Parents... It’s like no matter what you say, it’s not okay. Or no matter what you do or how hard you try, it’s just not good enough. If only they would take a minute to ask how I’m doing and not how well I did on my last test.”

“(My parents) are what people would call bipolar or ticking time bombs.  Extremely nice one second and ferocious beasts the second.  When I say ferocious beasts, I mean screaming at the top of their lungs, saying the most hurtful things that you would only hear bullies at school say. Heck, bullies are made seen as decent people next to my parents’ harsh side.”

“… my parents over react and take things out of proportion. When they’re angry, they get too angry; if they’re playing around, they play too much.”

“Parents are incredibly stupid. Why bring kids into this world if you don’t care about them?”

When I read these comments, I began to think about what I would have written about my own parents if, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, I had been similarly prompted. Then I wondered what my kids would have written about me and my husband. In both cases, the sentiments might have been similar. There are still moments when I feel disdainful of my parents. And, when they were teens, there were certainly times when one or the other of our kids hated one or both of us. And, when I think back on the circumstances, I can understand why.
In last week’s workshop, after we read the pieces quoted above, I told the girls about the Graham Nash song that I quoted at the top of this post. After I sang a bit of it, Carmen asked the staff members in the circle, “What about you guys? You’re the only ones who know what it’s like to be a parent. Do you have any regrets about how things went down with your own kids?”
I do. Most of the ‘do overs’ I would wish for if given the chance have to do with how I responded to problems of or things I said to, one of my children. I wasn’t a bad parent, but no matter how much I know I did right, I am haunted by things I did wrong. As I have watched my children grow to adulthood and see them react to difficulties, I wonder if my mistakes made things harder for them, if my words or actions irreparably scarred them.
In most cases, whenever I have broached the subject with my children, the child in question doesn’t even remember the event I regret. Now that three of my five children are parents, themselves, they empathize with my insecurity about the process. We are all aware of “becoming ourselves” through our parental trials and errors. I bear my own parents no grudges for their parenting mistakes. In fact, I think that dealing with them probably helped me become a better person and a wiser parent, but although I know that my own past mistakes should be left by the side of the road, I can’t seem to let the memories go.

Good or bad, our parents parenting informs our own. Last week, we asked the girls to write advice for parents. The writing was, again, anonymous, and we prompted them with “If I were a parent…” Here are some of the things they wrote:

“At least once a week I would just sit down with each of my children and just talk.

“I would:
- Try to give them good advice.
- Ask how school was.
- Drop them off at school if they missed the bus.
- Attend all their school functions and congratulate them.
- Say “I love you” every time they leave the house.”

“Instead of constantly saying, “You could have done better” to my child, I’d say “good job; I’m proud of you.”

“This is what I would do differently: always, always, without exception, count to 10 when I’m angry – maybe 20 – then speak or leave the room.”

“But, no matter what, I will be sure to give my children all the love and support that my parents have given me.”

Don’t you ever ask them why. If they told you, you would cry. Just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Small Offers/Big Steps

“Hey, Claire!” Janella called out when she first saw Claire enter the classroom.
            “Hey,” Claire replied casually, as she walked toward her usual seat in the circle.
            “I’ve been noticing,” continued Janella gently “that you’ve been sitting way over there.  Would you like to sit here with us?  There’s an empty seat next to me.”
            “Sure!” Claire’s answer came swiftly, unequivocally, joyfully.
            Janella signaled for her to come over and Claire, smiling broadly, made her way across the circle that had been separating them since Girls Surviving workshops began two months ago.
            We smiled too. We were proud of Janella, a long-time participant in Girls Surviving, for reaching out to Claire, one of our most recent additions to the program.
            Sarah, Janella’s best bud in the troupe and another experienced participant, leaned into me when she saw that I was smiling. “Psst,” she whispered into my ear.  “She’s been eating lunch with us in the cafeteria too.”
            There were smiles all around. A giant step had been taken toward bridging the gap between “veteran” troupe members and “newcomers” during this brief exchange.  Small acts of kindness like these are making a huge difference in the way all of the girls are communicating.  New members for whom language is still a barrier have begun to write volumes because our bi-lingual counselor offered to translate anything they wrote in their native language into English.  They also seem much more comfortable speaking in our workshops now that our veterans are beginning to understand how hard it is for them to articulate deep thoughts and feelings in English and how embarrassing it is for them when they make a mistake.

A couple of weeks ago we did an improvisation to illustrate the point.  In it, one of the girls in the troupe who loves French and has been studying it for a couple of years described our classroom in French.  She described it in detail – the desks, the wall art, the chalkboard – as if it was the most beautiful room in the world.  She exulted at the room’s beauty, pointing out its finer points. The contrast between the drab reality and her florid description made the scene very funny.  Occasionally she paused to allow her acting partner, a non-French speaker, time to translate, as best she could, so that all of us could understand. And, of course, we couldn’t. But, using the same inflections and facial expressions as our French-speaking tour guide, the non-French speaker stumbled on, making one mistake after another.  Her misinterpretation of what was being said was hilarious.  Having lived in a foreign country myself, I know how amusing it can be for native speakers to listen to non-natives speak their language.  It’s not always funny, however, to the non-natives, especially if they’re talking about serious issues. I think our veteran girls, each fluent in English, began to learn that lesson during that improvisation.  Since then, they have made a point of encouraging our new English speakers. They ask them questions about their lives prior to moving here, praise their writing and wait patiently for them to respond – in English.
            Last week we were all rewarded when one of them contributed for the very first time in our check-in.  She blushed and laughed to cheers and applause from around the circle.  The circle is beginning to feel unbroken.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Girls Surviving Wins the Day, a Thanksgiving Tale

          Listed below – out of context and as they come to mind: responses to various points of view expressed in a political discussion during the Thanksgiving break.

          “That’s ridiculous.”

          “People are sick of hearing about ….”

          “It’s absurd.”

          “She’s right.”  (implication? You’re wrong)

          I left the discussion abruptly, before it was over.  It wasn’t the political disagreement that bothered me, but the way in which everyone, including me, had been talking to each other.  

          “Nobody was being malicious, just passionate, “I told myself.  “It doesn’t matter how we were speaking to each other.  Underneath it all we know we care about one another,” I said to myself on my silent march to an empty room. “Everyone is just overstuffed with turkey and overtired from all the holiday chaos.”  I walked into the room and shut the door. I needed space to think.

          “I suppose,” I rationalized, “there’s a place for this kind of conversation – a debate, really, in which someone feels so strongly about an issue that he tries to convert others to his way of thinking. It’s okay.  It’s a debate.”

          No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that there had been nothing wrong with the win/lose nature of the discussion, I continued to feel disturbed by it.  My mind wandered to Girls Surviving and all that we do in our workshops to encourage listening, understanding and tolerance even when we disagree. Paula and I had just finished writing an article about the techniques we use with the girls to help them develop enough confidence in themselves to listen without judgment to a variety of points of view but also speak out when an issue is particularly important to them. If we told the girls that what they have to say is ridiculous or flat out wrong, we know they would shut their mouths tight like clams and speak no more.

          Unlike insecure teenage girls, most adults bounce back after having been shut down, as was the case during our Thanksgiving discussion.  But wouldn’t everyone be better off if we took a lesson from the Girls Surviving experience?  Wouldn’t we stand a better chance of changing minds if we allowed others the opportunity to speak their minds without interruption or labeling and they allowed us to do the same?  Maybe we would learn something from the effort that we didn’t know before, see the issue in a different light, feel inspired to research it in more depth, and, most important, know that we had contributed something meaningful to the conversation.

          The Thanksgiving discussion was dying down when I re-entered the scene. People were tired. The long weekend was coming to a close and we all were ready to go our separate ways. Before we disbanded, however, I told the others what I’d been thinking about.  They were surprised and apologetic.  They had focused on what we were debating, not how.  They understood.  We agreed that we all could have done better.  I urged all of us to listen and speak more respectfully.  Future holiday conversations with my friends and family, I believe, will be more thoughtful as a result of passing along the wisdom gained from years of working with the Girls Surviving staff and troupe members.