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.”

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spinning and Braiding

Three threads of thought are woven into this post, threads spun from three occurrences over the weekend. The first began Friday afternoon when I read an email exchange between a girl in our troupe and one of our program’s benefactors; the second is the result of a conversation I had with my daughter. The third was spun a few hours later when I was looking over my notes from our last GS workshop.

Thread One – Dr. James Gallagher has been helping one of our senior girls with a documentary project on homeless teens by acting as liaison between her and the executive staff at Covenant House New Jersey. This week, he offered her a ride from Morristown to Newark for a face-to-face meeting.
Jim Gallagher is a very busy man. He is also the person most responsible for the success and continuity of the Girls Surviving program. The members of the Girls Surviving troupe – teens and adults – are unbelievably blessed in our friends but, without a doubt, Jim is the most generous and visionary among them. During the winter of our first year, Jim attended a workshop in which staff members outnumbered teen participants. In spite of this unpromising glimpse into our future, he saw the program’s potential and, since that night, has supported and advised us. Jim’s material generosity is a godsend to the program, but what is most remarkable and, to me, inspiring is the amount of time he gives to personally mentor us and the girls.

Thread Two – Friday night, my youngest daughter worked her first shift as a staff member in a residential group home for girls. I was asleep when she returned home from her first day at work but she woke me early Saturday morning when she sat down on the side of my bed, handed me a cup of coffee, and sighed, “Oh my god, I have just experienced what it’s like to have a meaningful job! The girls in that house actually need me.”
She went on to describe heartbreaking scenarios, stories of childhood suffering which, although they have a generic familiarity to anyone who has worked with teenagers at risk, inspire pity and sadness in every new retelling.

It’s easy for my daughter to empathize with troubled teen girls because she, herself, had a traumatic adolescence. However, although some of her own experiences, as well as training she received for this job, taught her what to expect from teen girls at risk, I don’t think she was prepared for the reality of the lives of girls whose living situations require an out-of-home residential placement. Her own teen traumas, some of which were life threatening, were cushioned by a compassionate family whose resources enabled her to receive treatment. Like some of the girls she will be helping, she ended up spending the better part of a year away from home, first in a wilderness treatment program, and later in a residential therapeutic facility, but during that time she was in constant communication, through letters and by phone, with her parents and siblings. When she returned home, she was fortunate to be able to attend an alternative high school where teachers recognized that healthy affective growth is essential to the development of intellectual and academic skills. Through everything, she had counseling and guidance from a remarkable professional whom, I believe is responsible for her current well-being. This woman, because she has been a such a strong role model, is probably also responsible for my daughter’s current career path into social work or psychology.

Since my daughter left home after high school to attend college, she has lived on her own in diverse communities and in a variety of situations. Because she has supported herself financially through these adventures, she has also had many work experiences: food server, farm worker, office drudge, social media consultant… the list could go on. She came home to live with my husband and me two years ago, during which time, she has devoted her non-earning hours to community service: training and volunteering as a firefighter, EMT, and court appointed special advocate. Yet, until Friday night, I don’t think any of these experiences gave her an adult perspective on her own teen experiences. Teenagers view the world as the setting for their own life story, even when they are surrounded, as my own daughter was, by stories much sadder and more dangerous than their own.

From my own, very adult, perspective, the stories my daughter told me this morning evoked an array of thoughts and emotions. Because I am currently collaborating in the care of two young grandchildren, I have a renewed awareness of the vulnerability of very young children that lent an immediacy and poignancy to the stories of teens who were neglectfully or intentionally harmed during their early years. This is a layer over painful memories from my own childhood and of the childhood sufferings of my own children, caused either by inexperienced parenting or by the insensitivity or cruelty of others. And, of course, another layer is the work I have done for the past twenty-some years with teens at risk.

Thread Three – About three weeks ago, we were informed that a foundation we hoped would provide funding for our summer program had refused our request. This is the most recent of several proposals made to various funding sources to be denied. In spite of the best efforts of Gina Moran at Morris Arts, it is beginning to look like we will go a second year with no summer program. I was ruminating on this as I opened my GS binder to read over the notes taken at our last workshop. There, in a pocket of the binder, was the list of “Positive Priorities” that Phyllis Hassard had given the girls during her visit. Here I read, “Change is opportunity;” Your dream must be greater than your fear;” “Forget your disappointments, but always remember your blessings,” and the threads began to braid.

The summer intensive is an important part of the GS process because it provides new girls an opportunity to discover the program. And, like the girls at my daughter’s job, these are girls who really need us. Because I believe we can make a difference for these girls, I won’t be satisfied that we did the best we could by writing proposals and meeting with funders. Like Jim Gallagher, I will go out of my way to provide services for our girls. As Phyllis reminded me, Change is Opportunity. This year’s summer program doesn’t have to be the same one we’ve always provided; Carolyn and I will design a plan that our budget will support. We will meet another of Phyllis’s challenges to “Never – Ever – Give Up.”

Friday, April 10, 2015

Welcome Changes

             “How are you doing?” we ask as our circle fills in with faces we haven’t seen in a while. With the school play over, major testing out of the way, and the sports season drawing to a close, girls are returning to Girls Surviving.   They’re excited to see us and their troupe mates.  They fill napkins with cookies, almonds, pretzels strawberries or a little of everything from the snack table and settle happily into their seats. They’re itching to tell us what they’ve been up to. It feels like we’re sitting around a kitchen table, welcoming the kids home from camp or college.  

Everyone shares.  Some have exciting tales to tell.  Others shrug and say little, but smile broadly and munch contentedly on a favorite snack.  Still others describe significant milestones in their lives or complain about a vexing personal experience.  They talk about future plans as well as past experiences, people we know or have never met, situations that require our advice or a simple nod of understanding. 

After listening, we turn their attention to the last scene they are writing for their play. We’ve typed what they already have written by hand in their notebooks and made copies for each of them.  After passing them out, they divvy up parts equitably and collegially for a reading. We take a back seat to the proceedings and observe that no one tries to dominate the casting process.  Some express interest in trying on male characters. Some prefer to play it safe and read only stage directions.  When the reading starts, those who love to act take risks experimenting with different accents – choosing a southern drawl for one character, for example, and a sophisticated British briskness for another. Well fed and feeling safe, they relax into their parts and have fun.  They do not judge another’s reading.  They do not criticize.

When they finish, their positive attitude carries over into their conversation about how to develop and conclude their scene.  They are writing about a girl who would like to tell her father that she is a lesbian but is worried about how he will respond. They discuss their characters’ complicated thoughts and feelings about the situation with the same high energy and candor with which they checked-in and read their script. 
            When I was their age, this kind of conversation never would have taken place, especially in the presence of adults. No one talked about sexuality at all in those days unless it was absolutely necessary.  On those rare occasions when adults felt it their duty to say something, the conversations were awkward and brief.  Information provided by adults was veiled in coded messages.  For the uninitiated adolescent, sexuality only spelled danger.  What little of value that I learned about my own developing body and how the changes I was experiencing would alter my relationships I gleaned from hushed conversations with girlfriends and my observations of and interactions with men and boys. 

The words “homosexual” and “lesbian” were never mentioned by anyone – adults or kids. Those words were taboo.  “Gay” meant “merry,” and “straight” meant “direct” or “not curvy or wavy.” You didn’t have to consult Websters to know that.  

Homosexuality was so far below the radar screen in the world I grew up in that one boy I knew in college didn’t even realize he was gay until years later – not until after he had been married and divorced.  I remember reading his “coming out” announcement in a college publication and thinking, “Wow, how heartbreaking for him and those he loves that it took so long for him to recognize, accept, and live his truth.”
            A lot has changed since then. Because today we know a lot more about the biological underpinnings of homosexuality, a boy like him might not suffer from the same kind of confusion about his sexual orientation for as long as my friend did. However, some damaging social taboos still exist. As a result, even in today’s more enlightened world, it can still be very difficult psychologically and emotionally for a homosexual or lesbian adolescent to publically acknowledge his or her sexual reality.
            The lesbian character in the girls’ scene faces that challenge. As our girls begin to discuss her dilemma, they also reflect on the similarities and differences between her circumstances and the real life situations faced by homosexual and lesbian teens they know. Through the characters in the play, they’re able to engage in a serious conversation about sexuality and do it in our presence. What’s more, they invite us to participate.

I feel swept up in a sea change.  During the conversation, the girls proudly announce that their high school welcomes gay and lesbian students – that it might be easier right now for girls than for guys to fit in, but that the male culture is coming around – that beating up gay guys in the locker room might become a thing of the past.  They assure us that times are changing – and fast.  I’m swayed by their optimism, and I allow myself to be instructed by them.  As our conversation draws to a close, I feel only admiration for their tolerance and hopeful that future generations will be as welcoming of diversity as theirs seems to be.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Positive Priorities

WE’RE BAAAACK! At least, for the time being. After the poorly attended workshop I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, the girls response to our request for more support was strong. Almost everyone was present on the following week and the work they did was fabulous. Last night, after finishing the transcriptions of my share of the girls’ writing, I was, once again, struck by what good writers our long-term members have become. That night, they began writing with little more than an idea for a couple of characters and a situation, but they are writing powerful scenes in which tension builds and characters’ stories develop with every exchange of dialogue.

The following week, that is, last week, Phyllis Hassard, a good friend of Girls Surviving and an amazing survivor, herself, came to speak to the girls about “Positive Priorities for YOUR Success and Happiness.”
The girls, who all knew the evening would feature a guest speaker, began to trickle in at 6:00, but at 6:15, we had a smaller group than we had hoped for. Two of girls were playing in their first game of the lacrosse season, another was in rehearsal for the school play which would open the following day, and a fourth had to deal with last minute family situation that needed her immediate attention. Phyllis, who is familiar with the program, was undaunted by her small audience. She began her talk and, within a few minutes, those present were completely absorbed in her message. She is a great storyteller with a compelling story to tell: that of her own journey into and up through the glass ceiling of the male dominated business world of the early 1970’s. Her talk gave all of us, girls and women, inspiration that we, too, can overcome obstacles in our own lives.
As Phyllis’s talk was drawing to a close, there was a commotion in the back of the room. The two lacrosse players, still in uniform and shivering from their walk through the cold, rainy evening, had joined us.
“We had to see Miss Phyllis,” one of them whispered as she sat down behind me.
Later, while we sharing refreshments (more elegant than usual, in honor of Phyllis, and thanks to Carolyn’s baking skills), two GS alumna, girls who are now in college, stopped by.
“Sorry we’re late,” they said. “We got held up at work, but we wanted to see Miss Phyllis.”

Phyllis Hassard and Jim Gallagher with former and current troupe members

This is a real Girls Surviving story – a story of community and commitment that extends beyond any one season’s troupe. Commitment to our Girls Surviving community is a positive priority for girls who show up at workshops even when they are exhausted from sports or work, and for years after they have graduated from the program. They come because they have formed relationships with each other, with us, the staff, and with the program’s extended community. And this community: adults like Phyllis Hassard, like Dr. Jim Gallagher, and like the staff of Morris Arts have formed connections with the program and with the girls. Like Phyllis, they have a stake in our girls’ future success and happiness.