Pain and Poetry – Facing Our Fears

By Tom McKenna

Illustrator: Scott Bakal

Scott Bakal

A police car races past our school. Its siren pierces the reverie my students have settled into during our writing class. A number of students push back from their computers and lift their hands in mock surrender. Their actions appear to be involuntary. One student remarks, “Hey everybody, our ride’s here.”

The students crack up. I crack up along with them. No more serious writing this morning. The police car has run off with my students’ concentration and left me wondering about the negative experiences that underlie the laughter and poses of surrender.

I teach at a high school completion/GED program, the Portland Youth Builders (PYB), in one of Portland, Ore.’s poorest neighborhoods. Many of my students have spent time in jail, two wear house arrest bracelets around their ankles, and few have had positive experiences with the police.

I decide that if I am going to help my students address some of the barriers that stand between them and the dreams for a better future that brought them to my classroom, I need to come up with effective strategies to help them heal from wounds masked by their laughter.

Even though I’ve been teaching for 38 years, this year is the first time I’ve ever taught a writing class. I have been with this particular group of students for about two months. I’m often scrambling to come up with lessons that really connect with these students, that are meaningful, that expand their skills, and that bring about transformative moments in the classroom.

My students’ response to the police siren feels like a golden opportunity to lead them toward a deeper understanding of their lives and the world that has shaped them. What to do tomorrow? I wrestle with that question much of the rest of the day and evening.

How do I get to what lies at the base of their mock surrender? How do I connect with a core that allows them to safely find their way through the toxic worlds in which they live?

When I applied for the teaching position at PYB, I was asked to present a lesson plan to a group of staff members and students. I thought about using one of my “greatest hits” lessons from the past, but I wanted to do something fresh and honest, something new. I realized that I was beset with fears: fear I wouldn’t get the job; fear I’d been away from the classroom for too long; and, despite the fact that I was teaching other teachers how to teach at local universities, fear I really didn’t know what I was talking about anymore. So I decided to create a lesson built around one of my favorite poems, “Fear,” by Raymond Carver.

Why not use that same lesson with my writing students to help them examine the roots of their fears? Carver’s poem lends itself well to a class full of reluctant writers. “Fear” is a list poem. It follows an easily replicable structure and provides young people an opportunity to express and share feelings that often get in the way of their learning. Each line but one begins with the words “Fear of . . .”

Carver’s ‘Fear’ Resonates with Students

I’ve found that teacher self-disclosure often gives students permission to write more honestly, freeing them from the fear of being judged. So I begin the lesson by telling the story of my group interview for the job at PYB. I tell my students all the things I feared as my interview approached. “I’m old,” I explain, “set in my ways, and not a fan of rejection.” At one point, I confess to them, I wondered if I should even go through with the interview. But, I tell my students, I decided to face those fears and address them head-on in the hope of freeing myself from their hold.

Then I hand out copies of Raymond Carver’s poem. I ask the students to mark any lines that reach out and speak to them as I read the piece aloud: lines that grab them by their shirts and force a closer reading, lines that maybe even give expression to their own fears.

The first line of “Fear” hits home: “Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.” I pause after reading the line and look up to see what my students are doing. Most are underlining the words, circling them, putting an exclamation point after the line, making some kind of mark that says, “Yes, this line resonates with me.”

After reading the poem aloud, I ask students to share their favorite lines “popcorn style”: “Just shout a line out when you feel so moved. Don’t worry if two shout out simultaneously. Silences won’t hurt us. Feel free to repeat lines for effect. Start whenever you want.”

A chorus of student voices follows my instructions. Often I have to wait a bit for student voices to jump in. This time I don’t.

“Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.”

“Fear of death.”

“Fear of the past rising up.”

“Fear of waking up to find you gone.”

“Fear of running out of money.”

“Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.”

“Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough.”

After a full five minutes, I bring the chorus to a stop and ask my students what they heard in each other’s voices.

Jose says, “A lot of people don’t like to see police cars.”

I ask for a show of hands: “How many of you have had negative experiences with the police?” Every student raises a hand.

“Who would like to share one of your experiences?”

Ben shakes his head, looks down, and says, “Man, you don’t even want to know.”

Lisa talks about the number of times that she and her friends have been searched while sitting in the park close to their apartment complex. “They know we don’t got nothing, but they do it anyway, every time they drive by.”

Titus shares why he was late to school the day before. “I got stopped at the MAX [light rail train] stop. A Tri-Met cop asked to see my bus pass. I showed it to him with my student ID and he tells me I’m too old to have a student pass. I show him my student ID and he walks away, makes a call on his walkie-talkie, and before I know it there’s two cop cars, I’m being searched, they bring out a drug dog who sniffs me and my backpack. They find nothing, take another look at my ID and say, ‘OK, you’re legal, you can go.’ No ‘Sorry,’ nothing. And I’m an hour late to school.”

I thank the students for their open and honest comments. “What else did we hear in each other’s voices from the poem? Which other of Mr. Carver’s fears hit home with us? What fears of your own did you become aware of?”

Students offer a variety of responses: fear of not being good enough, fear of the past catching up with them, fear of not being able to stay clean, fear of their infant children not respecting them and the choices they’ve made. The list goes on.

“We have lots to write about it.” I clap my hands and tell the students that we are going to write our own “Fear” poems.

Student Poems Break Down Barriers

I offer simple instructions. “Put down on paper what you were just saying aloud. Start each line with ‘Fear of . . .’ Use descriptive language to show your fears with your words. Look for detail like Raymond Carver did. Remember his first line that so many of you liked: ‘Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.’ Mr. Carver doesn’t say ‘fear of the police’; instead he uses one line to describe a scene so that when we read his words, we can say, ‘He’s afraid of cops.’ Any questions?”

A rustle of notebooks opening is followed by requests for writing utensils, paper, and use of the computers. The students eventually get down to work after I remind them that this is quiet writing time—after 38 years, I can say “Quiet, please” quite well. I write with them. We manage to write quietly for about 20 minutes. I wait for all to finish off a final line and then ask students to share lines from their poems in the same manner as we spoke lines from Raymond Carver’s original, “popcorn style.” Not all choose to share, but a few students volunteer.

Deavon says: “Fear of everyone being right about me.”

Chris says: “Fear of never seeing my brother again.”

Uzi, in a voice one notch up from a whisper, says: “Fear of getting shot/Fear they’ll get my family before they get me.” A stunned silence hovers over Uzi’s words. Before anyone can comment, our sharing time is cut short by the clock. It is time for lunch. God forbid I should run class time over into lunch. I collect the student papers and retreat to my office to read them.

As is often the case, I am humbled and deeply moved by the student work I get to read. I start with Uzi’s piece. I want to know more from the tidbit he offered at the end of class:

Fear I’ll get shot

Fear they’ll get my family before they
get me . . .

Fear my daughter won’t know me

Fear she’ll grow up to be like me . . .

Fear I’ll go to hell


Fear I’m not good enough

Fear my past will catch up with me

Fear I won’t stay clean

Fear I’ll never find love

And Jose:

Fear my love only hurts those I love

Fear of being caught without my piece

Fear of being a father

Fear I’ll never get the chance

I have to put the papers down for a minute to catch my breath and think about the worlds that my students take for granted as ordinary, everyday. I feel ill-equipped to deal with the honest writing “Fear” has wrought. I decide to start our next class by asking the students what they want to do with their “Fear” poems. Given the level of honesty expressed in their writing, I am surprised by what I hear in class the next day.

“We want to do a read-around,” Deavon asserts. Everyone else agrees.

“OK.” OK as in, Are you sure you want to go that deep? “Who wants to go first?”

Pierre raises his hand. “I will.”

Pierre is one of the most challenging students at PYB. He has yet to write more than five or six lines in class. He is hanging on by a thread, having been sent home on a number of occasions by staff for refusing to work, for making threatening comments to others, for showing on a regular basis that maybe he isn’t a good fit for our school. He has spent time in jail. By his own admission, he is a fighter with anger management problems. He once was a championship wrestler from a famed program in Portland’s African American community, but he also knows the violent side of making a living on the street. He is a new father trying hard to change his life for the better.

The class grows quiet. Pierre clears his throat and says, “OK, y’all, here we go,” as if warning everyone to hang for a wild ride.


By Pierre Sails

Fear of GOD!!!

Fear of going back to prison

Fear of being a bad father

Fear of making amends

Fear of not making amends

Fear of my past taking over

Fear of being confused

Fear of death

Fear of guilt

Fear of people taking my kindness for weakness

Fear of growing up

Fear of not growing up

Fear of paying my own bills

Fear of being broke

Fear of going back to drugs

Fear of making the wrong choices

Fear of feeling it was the only choice I had

Fear of my daughter growing up

Fear of not giving my daughter what she needs

Fear of making mistakes and not learning from them!!!!!!!!!!!!

Fear of getting old

Fear of dying alone

Fear of being ME!

A pin-drop silence is soon followed by spontaneous applause.

I ask students to share with Pierre what they like about his piece.

“It was just so honest.”

“I liked the line where you said, ‘Fear of going back to drugs.’ I feel the same way. I mean, what if I get out of here and there just ain’t no job for me? I don’t want to go back to slinging dope, but I got kids and a fella’s got to do what a fella’s got to do. I feel you, my brother.” Pierre’s classmate saunters over to him and gives him a hug with two taps on his back.

Another student turns to Pierre and says, “I know what you mean when you wrote about people taking kindness for a weakness. I feel that all the time, like I got to be tough all the time. I can’t let my guard down or else somebody will get me.”

Similar comments and gestures follow. Pierre breaks down some important barriers for the class. It is OK to show some vulnerability, to talk about fears, to share genuine emotion with classmates.

Ben goes next. Ben and Pierre first met when they were in jail together. They reconnected at PYB and share a mutual respect.


By Ben Teasley

Fear of po’po’ . . .

Fear of going to sleep behind bars

Fear of never waking up

Fear of loving someone who don’t
love me

Fear of growing old alone

Fear of relapse

Fear of my daughters meeting men
like me

Fear of happiness

Fear of a life that is not really mine

Fear of the man that will have the heart to take my life

Fear of the devil that will take my soul

Fear of not wanting to trust no one

Fear of not knowing

Fear of knowing too much

Fear of myself

Fear of the end when

I know this is just the beginning.

Ben is like a rap star after a show. He dances around the classroom basking in his classmates’ accolades. “I’m bad. That’s right.” He either hugs or exchanges handshakes with everyone in the room before returning to his seat.

And then it is Deavon’s turn. Her big blue eyes survey her poem quietly. Her right wrist, heavily adorned with bracelets, tries to steady the hand that holds her page. Alexxis, seated beside her, whispers some words of support.


By Deavon Snoke

Fear of everyone being right about me

Fear of being right about myself . . .

Fear of relapse

Fear of recovery

Fear of figuring out who I am without

Fear of my younger siblings finding out
who I was . . .

Fear of anything I have to purchase
in a park

Fear of an empty funeral home . . .

Fear of unfamiliar phone numbers

Fear of familiar phone numbers with unfamiliar voices

Fear of “sit down, we need to talk” . . .

Fear of not proving everyone wrong

Fear of people knowing I’m afraid

A palpable momentum surges around our reading circle. Reluctant students ask if they can be next to read. Classmates shout encouragement, as if those who read their pieces just got off Pierre’s scary ride: “It’s fun, you can do it.”

Katie shares:

Fear of failing as a mother

Fear of losing my father to his good
friend alcohol

Fear of trusting the wrong person

And Mikey:

Fear of being arrested for mistaken ID

Fear of going to prison for life

Fear of being charged with a crime
I didn’t do

When class ends, I’m on cloud nine. I want to tell someone, anyone, what just happened. I go home after school and take my dog for a walk. He is more interested in the plethora of scents that inhabit the field where we walk than in my excited tales of the day. The day’s joy is soon tempered by questions about what to do tomorrow. How do I follow what happened today? How can I build on the energy, authenticity, sense of community, and learning that we celebrated in today’s writing class?

Students Reject a Dr. Phil Approach

I succumb to an Oprah moment and decide that I will have students take their “Fear” poems and turn them into affirmations. I’ll have Pierre turn “Fear of people taking my kindnessfor weakness” into “My kindness is a strength.” It seems like a good idea. I’ll help students turn their pain into power.

I begin our next class by handing back the “Fear” poems and sharing my thoughts on the class. “I was really touched by your honesty and inspired by the places you got to in your writing. We all carry a lot of fear. Dealing with it is important because often fears get in the way of doing what we know is the right thing to do. So, today we are going to try and take our fears and turn them into positive statements, into affirmations.”

I offer the example of Pierre’s line about kindness being seen as weakness. I follow with a few more examples. Deavon is shaking her head.

“What?” I ask.

“Tom, you’re scaring me. You’re sounding a bit too much like Dr. Phil.”

Chance, one of the most thoughtful students I have, emerges from his back-of-the-room slumber. “I see what you’re trying to do, man, but you’re missing something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be critical, man, but it’s not that easy. It’s not like we can just change our minds about the way our lives are and everything will get better. Shit happens to us, man. Look, I know all of us have made some bonehead choices along the way, I sure have, but we’ve also had a lot of stuff come down on us. I’m not trying to make excuses, but shit just happens to us. Do you guys agree, or am I crazy?”

Most students agree. Some have to digest Deavon’s and Chance’s words. Some aren’t sure if it’s OK to question a teacher like their classmates just did. Chance isn’t crazy, but he does have those wild eyes, and swears he sees a conspiracy behind every bush (or Bush, as he likes to say).

We talk. Bottom line is that my lesson isn’t going to work. The students aren’t going to do it and, to be honest, I agree with Deavon and Chance.

The high of yesterday is threatened by the sobering reality of today. What happens now?

If I agree with Chance—that students have made some poor decisions, but those decisions have been made within a context defined by race, class, and cultural dynamics that disempower many of my students—then we need to explore the things that besiege them.

Search for a Collective Story

My initial goals for writing class were simple: motivate students to write, break down their resistance to writing, help them find their voices, use prompts that connect with their experience, and expose them to a variety of genres. In short: inspire them to write, to write more, and to write with passion and authenticity.

Now I’m asking students to use writing to heal open wounds. The first step of their healing is to identify their fears. Then I need to support my students as they explore the reality that their fears are not attributable simply to poor choices they have made.

The next step is for the students to locate their fears in the context of their considerable collective experience. Their fears, exacerbated by their sense of isolation and powerlessness, are not their fault. If writing can be used to explore and share individual fears, it can also be used to explore the social roots of my students’ predicament. And, because we have the luxury of working together in a school with a deep commitment to social justice, my students can continue to build on their work in other classes.

The young people with whom I work have remarkable stories to tell. Their writing is not simply the stories of individuals who have made boneheaded decisions along a miserable path of failure; their writing is part of a collective story of survival in the face of daily crises, obstacles, and injustices. I continue to search for writing prompts that will push this exploration forward, and to work with colleagues to develop complementary activities throughout our curriculum.

It’s another day, and we find ourselves settled in a writing reverie. Again, a police car screams by the front of our school. Again, students pull back from their computers, raise their hands in mock surrender, and we all crack up. This time our concentration is no longer handcuffed in the back of a speeding car. We get back to work.

Before class ends, I ask, “Is everyone finished writing?”

No, we’re not finished. We’re just getting started.


Raymond Carver’s poem “Fear” can be found online at