Wednesday, February 8, 2012

SWAT: Fare Thee Well.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

SWAT (Students, Writers, and Teachers), was a program done through Now Hear This!, and the Toronto District Catholic School Board. The program put professional authors in schools. The writers worked with students: some gifted, some struggling, others at risk, all aspiring to something, often fearing to show it. Some of the students came from tough neighbourhoods with difficult family situations, challenging backgrounds, some from war zones, others with relatives in, or headed to, war zones; each with their own story to tell. I was with the program for six years. I’m sad to say that it has come to an end.

I found it difficult to write this entry, to find a suitable angle or focal point. I feel that the students are the focal point of the program, as the next generation should always be the main concern of the current, but it isn’t coming to an end because it wasn’t beneficial to the young people involved, but because it relied on outside funding, didn’t turn a profit and the funding ran out. I don’t want to get into that, though.

But, to focus on the students, where do I begin? I suppose the most logical place would be on their writing. The students wrote about struggles with family, love, life, racism, faith, sexuality, spirituality, physical and emotional abuse, mental illness; things that people at any age have difficulty dealing with, let alone dealing with these issues when you’re trying to figure out a mind and body that’s going through some major changes of its own.

In my first year, one student wrote about her father throwing her mother down the stairs. She found the courage, not just to write about it, but to write about it in her father's voice and then to allow it to be published. You can read the story, for yourself in, “the Armadillo”, one of the programs three, soon to be four, anthologies of students’ writings published through the Descant Arts & Letters Foundation. The story is called, ‘King Gilbert’, and was written by the courageous Dania Gilbert. She later emailed me to say that she had decided to go into journalism, and let me know how inspirational she found the program to be.

In a different year another student wrote about his abusive father who only became abusive after getting cancer. The father died and the son was left plagued with questions. Every time that student used to come into class he’d say, with a smile, "Hello, sir. How are you today?" and shake my hand.

A student in another semester felt comfortable enough near the end of the term to write about his thoughts of suicide. We were able to get him help.

I was disappointed one year with a student who showed promise but, I thought, couldn’t stay focussed. Then, on my last day, I was headed home late at night and stopped by a bakery and saw her working. She must have been exhausted in class.

There were so many wonderful students, so many stories to tell. I had forgotten how hard it was back in high school and how little control you had over your life, body and the situation you were in. I saw in the classroom how much the students’ achievements and their ability to reach their potential depended on their support network—kids have a tendency to live up, or down, to what we expect of them. We all need someone to believe in us and for us to believe in our own capability.

It felt good whenever I saw their confidence building; their work always seemed to improve when they became less afraid of making mistakes, and started to find their voice. They would sometimes begin joking and creating with other students that they didn't get along with outside of class, often willing to openly share remarkably personal stories by the end of the semester.

All the teachers I was privileged to work with were encouraging and patient with the students, and me. They seemed grateful for the exercises in creativity and critical thinking, that the program provided, how it added to and enriched the curriculum, and gave the students the opportunity to explore their imaginations and to ask a published author about the writing process. But I don’t wish to speak for the teachers, only to show my gratitude toward them.

I’m also grateful to everyone at Now Hear This! who got the program going and kept it running; and to the Toronto District Catholic School Board for allowing us into their schools. I was given the rare opportunity to share something I love, to be a part of something I believe in, fostering the growth of creativity in young people while together we faced the joys and terrors of both the written word and a blank page. I hope many of them found a friend in both.

The blank page will always be there for them, to listen without judgement and help them find creative solutions, within themselves, to problems they face. If they feel isolated, like no one understands, hopefully they know that if they look they’ll find a story, or a poem, or a song, about another person who has been through something similar. If they can’t find one, it’s their job to write it. That is why we write, that’s why we read: so that no one has to ever go though it alone.

I’ve gone on far too long for a blog entry. Though I’d like to tell more stories I think it best if you heard them from the students. Please go to and order any, or all, of the student anthologies, or ask your schools and libraries to get them in.

I will miss the program, but, hopeful, one day someone will look for value that can’t be measured in dollars and cents and invest in flesh, blood and spirit. Invest in the next generation. There are many more stories that need to be told.

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