The Shelter of Imagination

Posted September 11, 2017 & filed under Notebook, WITS People.

Meggie with Armoney, age 6,
at George R. Brown Convention Center

Days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, WITS Program Manager, Meggie Monahan, volunteered at George R. Brown Convention Center, reading, writing, and playing with children who had been displaced by the storm and floodwaters. Meggie reflects on the power of imagination, the generosity of listening, and the resilience of children. Read an excerpt from “The Shelter of Imagination,” which originally aired on KPFT 90.1 FM’s “So, What’s Your Story?”.

When I was a child, our sticky Pennsylvania summers were filled with “make-believe” games. My siblings and I strung stage curtains out of old Sesame Street bed sheets. We wrote new & improved scripts for our favorite Disney movies, and we choreographed music videos for Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” album. Then one summer, our parents got a new refrigerator. And in the weeks to follow, that huge empty box in the garage became pure and total magic. It was our special hideout: a dark and cool refuge from parents and chores, an escape from mosquitoes, and a ticket to a bigger world.

I haven’t thought about that refrigerator box in a long time. But last week at the George R Brown Convention Center, I recognized it from across the room as Davion and Abu led me by the hand to their special fort. We snaked our way through a sea of cots and blankets and belongings, and there was this beautiful empty box— a space that could be anything at all, anything they wanted it to be. There, smack-dab in the middle of noise and need and exhaustion and loss, these boys had chosen to stand on the shoreline of their imaginations and create a new, more hopeful world.

I came to Houston to study creative writing, and I stayed in Houston because of Writers in the Schools, an organization that believes in the life-saving power of the imagination. We believe that every child has a voice, that every voice is valuable and deserves to be heard— and that the act of sharing our stories is what makes us human, and what connects us to each other. When talking about WITS, I like to say that “wherever kids are, that’s where we want to be,” and that includes inside a cardboard box in the middle of the 4th largest city in the nation.

In the aftermath of Harvey, I’ve had the opportunity to sit with some of our city’s children at the GRB and the NRG and listen to their voices. And it has reminded me and affirmed in me two things: one, that kids are kids wherever they go. And two, that playfulness, imagination, and creativity are trustworthy tools for healing. Even after being displaced by a hurricane, kids want to sit in your lap and wear your sunglasses. They want to pretend to be tigers and practice their super hero moves with you, cover you in stickers, and braid your hair. Most of all, when they believe you are truly listening, kids want to talk. They are natural storytellers, and they want to tell you about their pets and their best friends and their dream vacations, and what they want to be when they grow up. And at WITS, our most important job is to listen— to really listen— and to celebrate and encourage and elevate children’s words at every level.

And that’s what I love about WITS: that we as a community of writers are committed to excavating and elevating the stories of our young people, and emboldening them to use their words to create a more just and beautiful world. And one day these kiddos— the Davions and Abus and Tianas and Bobbies and Anthonys and Nathans and Christiannas and Zias— all of these children are going to tell stories to their children about what happened when it rained for days and days they needed to leave their homes and live in a new and unfamiliar place. And it’s my hope that peppered within their stories and their families’ stories, there might be some small, treasured moments of play, lightness, and getting to be a kid, even in the midst of tragedy.

There is an Irish saying that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live,” and I would expand upon that by saying, “It is in the stories of each other that the people live.” When we take the time to sit and listen to the story of another person, especially a child, they may not know where to start— but the act of listening is powerful and invites generosity and willingness in the speaker. And when children know they are being listened to, they can’t help but fill empty spaces— air and pages and cardboard boxes— with all kinds of magic. Their giggles bounce across poured concrete floors. Their litanies of favorite foods transform phrases like “shrimp with garlic butter” into prayerful syllables in a crowded convention hall. And their Red Ninja lava super powers are, somehow, enough to defeat the Blue Ninja’s endless waves of water.

Letter from the Director

Posted September 1, 2017 & filed under News, WITS People.

Jarvis, age 5, tells his story, “Batman and Robin Saving People,” through a drawing.

Dear WITS Family,

Finally the rain has ended in Houston. The storm has affected each of us in some way, even those of us lucky enough to avoid flood waters.

After five days of mad precipitation, the deluge transformed into mist and disappeared. That’s when I noticed my Instagram feed was populated with hundreds of sky photos—not dramatic sunsets or hyperbolic clouds, just pale blue sky. Here in Houston, we have never appreciated blue sky as much as we have this week.

When we asked the WITS Writers if they wanted to volunteer to work with flood-affected families, all 30 spots filled in less than an hour. I am humbled to work with such talented, authentic, and generous poets and writers.

Thousands of evacuated families are living in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Although many of the children have experienced trauma, we are not asking them directly about their experience. Instead WITS Writers are bringing joy and playfulness to these kids, telling stories, building houses out of blocks, and pretending to be cars or frogs. As we’ve discovered in the classroom, the stories we most need to share come through, regardless of the subject matter. Humans are storytellers to the core. We connect with one another through language. Through poetry. That’s what makes WITS a powerful part of the healing process.

I have been moved beyond belief by the spirit of generosity demonstrated here in Houston this week. Our Democratic Mayor and our Republican County Commissioner are working as a dynamic duo. It seems as though everyone who remains unscathed is pitching in, helping to feed, clothe, and support those in need. Even the pop radio station that my cynical teens like best has been sharing tales of human kindness, ending with the refrain: “We are all neighbors. We are all family. We are #HoustonStrong.”

Nothing has brought our city together like this moment. It is truly inspiring. It makes me want to work harder than ever to bring the healing power of storytelling to every Houston child.

With love,

Robin

Joshua Nguyen, Robin Reagler, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Emanualee Bean, and Reyes Ramirez working for Houston’s recovery after Hurricane Harvey.

WITS Student Writes Poem of Hope to the City of Houston

Posted August 30, 2017 & filed under News, Notebook, Poem, Student Writing.

This morning, we received a touching gift – a poem written by one of our Writers in the Schools (WITS) students, Eshaan.

Eshaan, a 6th grader, crafted this poem during the course of his family’s journey through Harvey, and offers it up to the city of Houston as a way of bringing everyone together with words of hope.

Starting this week, WITS is volunteering at shelters to help more of our young neighbors tell their stories, because storytelling is healing, and we are #houstonstrong.

Hurricane Harvey: A Terrifying Tempest

Daily gales gossip of terror,
And tornadoes clone as if in infinite mirrors,
God watches over us though,
And as the winds blow,
He oversees,
Cities turning into seas.

I feel helpless,
As I pray for victims’ wellness.
Distraught and crying,
Kin of victims sighing,
Why is Mother Nature so cruel?

One minute there is sunrise,
The next moment you hear cries,
Young babies,
Old ladies,
All trapped in this haplessness.

A second Noah’s Ark,
God tells us to hark!
Batten down the hatches,
And as He snaps trees like matches,
Remember we are all one.

As bombs explode,
And tears flow,
Those on cloud seven,
Come down from heaven.
As barrages fire,
All unite in this horrid quagmire.

As we come together,
We will remake Houston for the better.
Resurrection is impossible,
But together we make it possible.
Harvey left distraught in his wake,
Many a person who stay awake.
If we unite as one,
We can get rebuilding done.

Neighbors help neighbors,
And the common man labors.
The hand hardened from oaring,
Helpful souls soaring.
911 is overworked,
As residents do their tornado homework.

We must pray,
And not stray,
Stay calm and strong,
For I believe God will see us through this storm.

By Eshaan