I've been teaching a creative writing class at the Senior Center. It's been a welcome break from the computer classes, there are no technical frustrations or unexplained error messages since we're doing this the old fashioned way, just pens and a journal. I adore my students, have really bonded with two of them, and then there were 2 others who I just couldn't connect with. On the first day of class one of the students just sat back and heckled me the whole time. I tried to include her heckles as suggestions but it became really difficult after a while, especially when she told me that what I'm teaching is witch craft. I have NO idea what gave her that impression but when she starting mumbling details about being burned at the stake I thought it better to ignore her heckles from that point on. At the end of class she informed me she would not be coming back because "I never once mentioned Shakespeare!" but she may pop in from time to time to observe. Just what I want.
Then there was another woman who did not speak for the entire hour and a half and and sat expressionless, staring straight at the wall, not making eye contact with anyone. I tried to draw her out but thought that was making her uncomfortable so from time to time I would focus on her while talking, hoping to make some sort of connection, but it just wasn't happening. About mid way through class she reached in her pocket and unwrapped a sandwich and just sat there taking small bite after small bite, staring off into space.
The following week the heckler did not return, (praise the Lord) but the woman who never spoke (I'll refer to her as "Rose") did. Before class started while I was getting set up and organized, Rose rattled off everything I had mentioned from the previous week, starting with the first exercise all the way down to the homework. I told her I was impressed because I didn't see her write anything down, in fact, she never even opened up her notebook. She told me she just remembers things, it was as simple as that. I asked if she would be up to participating more in today's class because she had a lot to offer. She seemed to be embarrassed by that remark, but smiled and said quietly, "I'll try."
Just before I was about to start class the Activities Director came in and said we have a new student starting, she's on her way in and her name is Betty. I FROZE because our next door neighbor's name is Betty, she's 93 years old and we have NEVER gotten along. (until the other day, but now that's another story entirely). Regardless, I was pleased to see it was not our neighbor Betty who waltzed into class and took her seat, next to Rose.
We started out with the New Yorker Caption Contest, everyone has to come up with a caption for the weekly cartoon, which I then submit on behalf of the students. We did some more picture captions from magazine cutouts as well as turning the pictures into News Headlines, then coming up with a short story about each one. These are just some exercises to spark imagination.
After that I asked the students when they went home, to find one of their favorite photos and study it, then write a story about what was happening in that photo. They could make the story fiction, or it could be an actual account of the events leading up to the snapping of the picture. It was their choice. Then, I asked that they bring in the photo so I could make copies of it, and include in their journal along with their story.
Rose's expression start to change, and she looked away from the class, again staring off into space. I asked if everything was ok and she nodded her head yes without making a sound.
Since this was Valentine's day weekend, I brought in some fun craft supplies and cards and asked if the class would like to make a Valentine card for someone special. Since many of the seniors are widowed, I stressed the point that this does not have to be a romantic card, it could be given to a grandchild, a friend who you've lost touch with, or even your next door neighbor. I passed out the cards and supplies and again noticed Rose turn away uncomfortably in her seat.
Then, I saw tears start to fall down her cheek.
Again, I asked if everything was ok.
She answered without lifting her head, "What if you don't have any friends?"
I told her that's ok, and asked if she had any family?
She said that no, they were all dead.
I felt my stomach start to churn.
Then I said, "You know what you can do? How about you write a letter to your mail carrier? You can leave it in your mailbox so when they deliver the mail, they have a nice surprise just for them! They probably never receive a Valentine card from anyone so how about we all do that and let them know how much we appreciate them and their hard work!" I felt pleased with this response because EVERYONE has a mail carrier so she at least would be able to participate in this exercise and feel good about spreading joy to our neglected carriers.
I was NOT prepared for what I heard next.
"I don't have a mail man...because...I don't have a home. I've been living on the streets for the last six months."
And that's when it took every single fiber of my being to not burst into tears right there on the spot.
Rose then went on to explain that her parents had died (her mother 10 years ago and her father, less than 2 years ago) and she was living in their house but ran out of money. She did everything she could to try to save the house but unfortunately, the bank won. She went to a shelter for a while and said she wouldn't wish that on her worst enemy. She said people were violent, angry and a lot of them just wanted drugs or alcohol. Rose wants a job. She broke down in tears and said that she used to have a nice home, and nice things and took care of them and now, has nothing. One of the students, who is hard of hearing said, "Can we please get on with class???"
I looked at her like, "Did you NOT just hear this woman's story?" and then realized she probably didn't because Rose was speaking barely above a whisper.
I told Rose that we would continue our conversation after class and went onto something lighter.
Inside the folder of crafty things, I had a bunch of animal pictures so I spread them out and had the students write a poem about an animal of their choice.
Rose chose a photograph of a cat.
She scribbled down some words while tears streamed down her cheek. Again, my stomach was churning, this time audibly and I felt like I was going to throw up or crap my pants right there in my seat. I begged God to make it stop, make it go away until I was back at home. And then I thought about Rose not having a home. And it got worse. I took some sips of my Diet Pepsi and started to breathe deeply. Rose said, "I used to drink Diet Cokes all the time." I made a mental note to buy Diet Coke and bring them to her next class.
The students finished their poems, which were read aloud in class. Rose's poem finally brought my tears to the surface, the ones I was trying so hard to fight back. I told her it was from the Pepsi, it makes my eyes water but I could tell she knew better.
As we started packing up our things, Rose was still holding the picture of the cat, her poem's inspiration, and was just staring at it. I asked if she liked that cat in the photo. She said that yes she did - he was very sweet. I told her, "Then you keep it." She looked up at me in surprise and said, "No! It's yours!" I said that I have plenty of pictures of cats and I would like her to have it, especially since it inspired her to write such a beautiful poem. You would have thought I just handed her $10,000. She thanked me at least 3 times and carefully folded up the picture and placed it into her pocket.
When class ended, I went upstairs to see "C" the Activities Director and broke down. She said she had no idea that Rose was homeless but then she said it all started to make sense based on her comings and goings. Rose had been coming to the center for about 6 months but never told anyone her situation, until now. She said they brought in a guidance counselor a few weeks ago but Rose was not very receptive and told her she didn't need any help. C and I decided to stay in close contact and she asked if I could find out more information in next week's class. I told her I would do whatever I could to help. When I left her office, there was Rose standing by the elevators. I was hoping that she didn't hear our conversation because I didn't want her to lose my trust. I asked her if she would like to grab lunch (the lunch at the center is soooo cheap and good too) but she declined. We talked for a bit and I realized that Rose is very proud and does not want pity or a hand out from anyone. She is a perfectionist and wants to work. She is not afraid of hard work and when she tried to go through "the system" she said finding work is not even an option when you don't have a home. She said in order to get any sort of help from the state, she needs to prove she is mentally incapable which she is not. She said she always "falls through the cracks" because she does not want a hand out, she wants a job. She went on to tell me the things that she is capable of doing and the places she has tried to find work since living on the streets but it's impossible for people to see beyond the physical. No one takes the time to see her as a hard working older human being. This is where it really hit me, hard. I guess most people want to assume that those who live their lives on the streets, ask for it. They are drug addicts, they are "crazy people", not people like you or me. No, that would be too hard to swallow. But here is a woman, an older woman, who is mentally stable, who should be searching for places warm and sunny to retire, instead of trying to find hard work.
It just doesn't make sense.
So, what do you do?
I will see Rose at class again on Friday. She pretty much hangs out at the Senior Center every day from 10am to 7pm but after that, no one knows where she goes. When I go to bed at night, in my warm bed, swaddled up in my several hundred thread count sheets I can't stop thinking about where Rose might be.
And that, breaks my heart.
Praying for strength for Friday. And any suggestions anyone may have.