The first day of poetry class, the young man had only one word to say to his new instructor Laurie Gilkenson: “Pizza.”
What’s your name? “Pizza”
What’s your favorite color? “Pizza.”
When Gilkenson started teaching the class for Arlington County’s Program for Employment Preparedness, which works with young adults who have mild to moderate intellectual and emotional disabilities that can include autism and Down syndrome, she knew there would be challenges. What she didn’t count on as much were the goosebumps. They crawled up her arms that first day of class in April when she handed that 20-year-old student a pen and paper and, with help, he wrote two poems. And there they were again on Friday as she watched him and his classmates stand on a stage at the Arlington Career Center and recite their works.
“If I were a butterfly,” the young man said in a whisper as a teacher assistant repeated his words louder for the audience to hear, “I would fly to Guatemala. I would eat pupusas. Oh my, oh my!”
Of the employment preparedness program’s 42 students, 13 stood on the stage, encouraged by an audience filled with their peers, parents and educators. They also had support from the nation’s top poet.
U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera sent an email that was printed in the program. “I am so honored to hear that you are creating poetry!” he wrote. “This is the best news I have heard today!” He signed it, “Sending you poetry hugs.”
Arlington Career Center Principal Margaret Chung said the poetry class, which was a first for the program this year, is important because it empowers students who are trying to learn to become their own advocates. It gives them a voice, she said.
“It’s a voice we don’t often hear,” Chung said. “It’s a voice we often misinterpret.”
Student Julia Van Gieson, a 22-year-old with autism, has learned to tell people what she likes and what she doesn’t. Some people with autism don’t like to hug, she has explained to those who have taken the time to listen, but she is okay with hugs if she knows a person well. She said she’s also worked hard to create a life in the community. She has her own place, a job at Safeway and is dating.
“I’ve got three younger sisters,” she said. “I have to show them, ‘Yeah, I have a disability, but I’m not going to let that rule my life or hold me back. If I can do it, you can do it.’ ”
The poetry class, she said, was fun and helped her better understand some of her classmates who aren’t very verbal.
“The less you can talk,” she said, “the more shut away you are.”
When Van Gieson’s turn came to read her poem, she took a long pause after saying her name. She explained later that she had never spoken in front of such a large crowd — about 40 people. Then she recited:
I have a dream to work with
animals and make enough
money to support myself
successfully. I also want to be able
to own my own home. Lastly I want
to put down roots.
I want to have two cats as companions.
She smiled wide when she finished, and the audience snapped fingers as applause. The next student ended his poem by raising his hands above his head, resembling a boxer who had knocked out his opponent. Another young man stood in front of the lectern and flapped his arms in imitation of the butterfly he spoke about.
That same young man at a rehearsal a few days earlier struggled to say his name but then read his poem fluidly, Gilkenson said.
“He cared so much about his poem that he didn’t even think about his impediment,” said Gilkenson, 63, who taught drama at the H-B Woodlawn magnet program for 14 years. “Poetry is something that’s a win-win situation because you can’t make a mistake. As soon as you put pen to paper, you’re a success.”
Student Jason Corea, 20, said after the event that he felt proud of himself.
“I was able to accomplish something that I stuck my heart and mind into,” he said. “I didn’t give up.”
Through poetry, he said, he and his classmates shared “how we feel, the person we truly are.”
“My life as a butterfly, would feel so good to me and here’s why,” he said when reciting his poem. “It’s so peaceful up in the sky, no worries, no troubles nearby. But if I were to become eaten, I’d make my enemy sick, so they won’t be quick.”
Micah Stein-Verbit, who leads the program, said the staff members had considered offering other creative outlets such as knitting or pottery. But they then settled on poetry and “never looked back.”
Later, as Stein-Verbit stood in front of the stage, congratulating students, Gilkenson walked over with a young man who wore a superhero T-shirt.
“Next year, I want to take poetry,” the young man told Stein-Verbit. “My dream is to be a rapper.”
Afterward, Gilkenson had only one word: “Goosebumps.”