Perspective By Alyx Chandler
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with labeling everything as either right or wrong, truth or lies, and had a hard time understanding what was between those two, that concept of a gray area. Looking back, I have a lot of respect for my parents. I realize I was probably a hard kid to parent at times: highly sensitive, intense, with a strong need for perfection. Not only did I have a tendency to demand too much of myself, despite some difficult circumstances, but I also demanded that from everyone else around me, despite their difficult circumstances. Let’s just say I look back and do a lot of cringing.
When your notion of truth is extremely skewed by black-and-white thinking, you’re not doing yourself or anyone around you a favor. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the older I get, the more aware I am of how little I really know, especially about what’s wrong or right. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been attracted to writing and reading, especially the tension of really incredible writing, how it’s always doing a push-pull dance around truth, questioning ethos. Reading was one of the first places where scenarios and stories and poems played out without a clear understanding of “good or bad.” That has a big impact on me as I grew up, as well as the day that my dad explained to me what the word perception meant, and told me how perception can be even more powerful in life than this “truth” I went around gabbing on about.
Dealing with perception is a huge part of the work we do at Free Verse. For almost a year now, I’ve been the AmeriCorps VISTA for two nonprofits, including Free Verse, which brings creative writing workshops to incarcerated youth in Montana, in addition to youth at a psychiatric unit in Missoula, and gives them the opportunity to publish their art, songs, and poetry in our I Am Montana volumes and The Beat Within, as well as in art shows and zines.
There are so many questions about perception when working with an incarcerated population, especially youth: How do we get them to perceive us as a safe place to share their story? How do we make lesson plans that prioritize their perception as important and powerful? How do we edit and share their work when people already have misconceptions of them? How do we change the public’s mind about those who are incarcerated being “bad kids”? How do we allow people to perceive these kids as people who, just like all of us, are often just doing what they can to survive? How do we get people from Montana and across the U.S. to begin to perceive incarcerated people, youth and adults alike, as humans who can and deserve to tell their stories and be heard, just like those who are not locked up?
Right and wrong doesn’t mean much when you’re hungry, or after a parent dies, or if you’re dealing with addiction. Growing up in the highly religious South, I was hard-wired to believe this notion of a strict right and wrong. But that’s one (of many things) that religion, as well as the system of incarceration and mental institutionalization, gets wrong. We work with kids who people perceive as “crazy” or “bad,” but when you hear the details of their lives, what they’ve been taught by systems of oppression or poverty, what they had to do to stay alive, then not only is that perception unfair, it’s simply untrue.
Judging people is really easy, which I know first-hand, as I’ve mostly lived my life becoming an expert in it. I’m thankful for that early lesson in perception with my Dad, and in the many books I still cherish, and remain hopeful as more and more incarcerated and institutionalized students share their stories with us, because then we are able to share their stories with you.
Like Free Verse Executive Director Nicole Gomez said at the end of her foreword in the most recent I Am Montana Volume, “Now it’s up to us to listen.”
You can’t always change the perceptions of others, even if that’s what so many nonprofits like Free Verse fight to do: to give people the opportunity to form new perceptions. I’m so proud of the work everyone on the Free Verse team has done this year, and even if we can’t change everyone’s perceptions with the stories of our students, I’ve come to realize I can still change my own. This year I learned there were (and still are) plenty of my own perceptions about people living in poverty, or who are incarcerated or institutionalized, that needed serious re-evaluating. No matter how truthful I thought I was being with myself about how I’d changed, the beliefs that are instilled in us from a young age have a way of lingering, and showing up when we least expect them.
We know what we know, what we see in our own lives, until we’re exposed to new experiences, new stories, and given the chance to re-perceive. That’s what reading the writing of Free Verse students allows people to do. That’s what it’s allowed me to do.
Read more at https://www.freeverseproject.org/student-work.
Read some poems from Free Verse students:
I am from a place that has no beating heart
where people do not care
that never starts
that hurts like being hit with a chair
I am from a place that toughens you up
where kids take a beating
that makes you jump
where kids are needing
I am from a place that hurts
that makes you cry
that never learns
that is full of lies
I am from a place that does not care for goodbyes
that has no problem pulling triggers
that makes you bigger
This is a place I call
My Grandma’s Hands
My grandma’s hands are wrinkled and gnarled. From years of arthritis and hard work and caring for those around her. Her hands tell a story everytime I touch their soft surface. They tell of love and compassion, heartache and loss. But without the hands of my grandmother, nothing would’ve helped me up when I had fallen down. Nothing would’ve brought the spoon to my lips when I was too young to do so. Those hands raised me.
I just wanted to know how you’re doing
I don’t know why I chose you to write to
But I hope you’re doing well wherever you are
I don’t know what to believe anymore
‘Cause I always find myself praying to a god
That I don’t believe in
So I don’t know where you are and I know I don’t know
That well but I just wanted you to know
That I love you and miss you a lot
I wish I could have said goodbye but I guess this is it
Goodbye I love you.
Crying. Some people say that crying is good for you. However, when you’re sitting in a cell, reading a book, and you start bawling because you wish that you could be loved like the characters love each other. Or the fact that the character got to be there for her love when he was dying. Or even the fact that after all the years they spent apart, they were able to come together as if it were no time at all. And then when you start to relate it to your own life and you start crying harder. When you want to scream but you can’t because it would scare the girl next to you. Then just opening your mouth, but no sound coming out because the pain is too deep. Then gasping for air as it feels like someone is taking a hammer to your heart over and over again. That is pain. Pain is when you feel nothing but everything at the same time. Pain is when you’re alone and no one is there to hold you no matter how bad you want it.
Am I going home?
When can I leave?
Ya know, you aren’t very helpful?
So my friends know where I’m at?
Is my mom gonna let me come home?
I hate it here, can I leave soon?
Where is the doctor?
Why can’t we have normal pens?
My room got moved, who was in here?
Can I attend my court hearing?