Teens Speak Out: How Grub's Teen Programs Give Voice to Young Writers

At this year's Muse and the Marketplace Conference, teen YAWP fellow Ruth Ballard spoke to the Muse Keynote audience about what GrubStreet's teen programs mean to her and why they are important for all teen writers. Visit our teen pages to find out more about how you can support our #writethefuture campaign and keep these vital programs free for all teens. Here is Ruth's speech, in full. 

 

The first time I came to GrubStreet, I was nothing short of terrified. My mother practically dragged me to their front door step, refusing to take “no” for an answer. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything more harrowing than having to spend an entire Saturday with a bunch of other teenagers I didn’t know. Despite my trepidation about social interaction, I didn’t have any qualms about the writing aspect of the class. In fact, like a lot of teens in the young adult writer’s program, I had always gravitated toward the written word. In elementary school, I was the weird girl who read books during recess, and in middle school, I was the weird girl who wrote poems during lunch. I really loved to write, but at 14, I had come to an agonizing conclusion: that I had nothing to offer. I was worthless, a total has-been before I had even seen my second decade. You can chalk it up to hormones or general teenage angst, but I would argue that there is a very real reason so many teenaged artists and writers feel so worthless: because they have been told they are. In school, my grades were less than favorable, my friendships tenuous at best. My teachers thought I was a slacker, an underachiever. I didn’t feel they cared if I succeeded at all.

My mom was right, as loathe as I was to admit it. I needed to go somewhere where my skills as a writer could be recognized and honed into something greater. At first I attended YAWP’s free saturday sessions in fiction and eventually in slam poetry. I barely spoke in class, but I was engaged. I was learning how to do exactly what I loved, even if I was afraid to speak out. I didn’t believe I could ever write like the poets and authors whose pieces we examined, and I, like so many other writers, was afraid my work would be ridiculed or misunderstood. What really changed the entire course of my future was trying out for GrubStreet's youth slam poetry team. It was the first time I had ever read my work aloud, and as intimidating as the experience was, making it on to the team gave me a sense of triumph I never would have expected. When you have to look your audience in the eyes, when they have to listen to you speak for a whole three minutes, your work starts to seem more important. Your words become valid.

Throughout my first year on the slam team, our coach, Regie Gibson, pushed me to perform and write in ways that scared me... And I survived. Thrived, even. I made connections with my fellow team members and the students in my classes, and I began to discover a new side of myself. I became a positive, creative force, with an intense craving to learn and discuss and make change. When our team made it to finals our first year at the Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry competition, I knew I was a part of something special.

With the confidence I gained at GrubStreet, I began to engage with school subjects and teachers I had previously dismissed. I participated in class and found that I could be as insightful and creative in history and science as I could be in poetry. Even more valuable, I think, was my newfound work ethic. Suddenly, writing a paper or studying for a test was not an unapproachable task. Buckling down and pushing through was not something that came easily to me, but the writing process taught me how to persevere, to play around with ideas and still get my work finished. Through hours of intense writing, editing, and practicing, I learned that working hard is a skill, and its results are tangible and worthwhile. In a way, I began to work harder because I felt better about myself. I deserved the chance to give it my all.

GrubStreet also helped widen my perspective of the world. My instructors made me think critically about issues outside of prose and poetry, how I played a role in them, and how I could reflect them through my art. Coming from a 96% caucasian suburban small town, I was not familiar with the current issues people of color face, and I didn't care to understand the plights of individuals with lower levels of income. At Grub I met students from diverse backgrounds with incredibly important stories and perspectives. Grub created a safe environment for these students to speak their truth, and for me to absorb it and learn.

In the YAWP program, I experienced another kind of perspective-shifting event. I tried out for the slam team the year following our triumphant rise to finals, and I didn’t make the team. Needless to say, I was completely crushed. More than anything, I was upset I wouldn’t be able to participate in another year of intensive editing and performing, a process I enjoyed tremendously. I felt like a terrible poet. It was then I got a call from Regie. He offered me the position of co-coach of the slam team, so I could continue to participate in the creation and execution of work I so loved. Not only was it an amazing opportunity, but it made me realize that someone cared enough about me and my work to give me another chance. I learned more about how to write poetry from teaching it, and as a co-coach I was able to witness the growth of my peers. My experience was not singular. Through freedom of expression combined with stellar instruction, I watched these students make incredible strides as writers and as people. We become better listeners and better speakers, insightful analysts, creative powerhouses.

YAWP instructors provide a remarkable balance between unwavering support and complex challenge, helping students like me build their skills and their confidence.

In the last three years, I’ve worked in YAWP’s classes and camps, our slam team, and the three-week YAWP teen writer’s fellowship. Each experience helped me to improve a different part of my writer-self and my actual self, and helped me make some of the closest friendships I’ve ever had. And I keep coming back. Because I have found a place where my words and ideas matter, where I will always be pushed to be the very best that I can be, and because the GrubStreet community has a unique ability to make all writers, regardless of age, feel like they belong.

 

Because we believe all teens should have access to these opportunities, we work to ensure that we can provide scholarships for all our teen programs. But we can only achieve this with your continued support and generous gifts. Our goal is to raise $20,000 by the end of June. Help us serve 250 teens this summer by texting "GRUB" to 50155 or visiting GrubStreet.org. Click here to donate today! Help us spread the word on Twitter with #WritetheFuture!
About the Author See other articles by Ruth Ballard
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