The Sojourn Domestic Abuse Shelter’s second-home, where mothers and their children flee and hide from violent households, sits on a cul-de-sac without signage. When I’d started leading Writopia workshops here, nobody gave me an address. A woman on the phone directed me through stop signs and traffic lights. I’ve taught workshops here for a few months now, and still I don’t know the address, only how to get here. I buzz in and unhook the front gate’s latch. Some days, kids chase each other on tricycles across the lawn. Today’s quiet, and I sign in at the office, seeing only the receptionist. The rest of the home looks like a home: a kitchen; a living room, at which a baby often sits in his high chair, watching television; bedrooms and bathrooms. You wouldn’t know this home was different from the others in the neighborhood but for this office.
“It’s Jasmine’s* last night here,” the receptionist says. “She wants you to come to her farewell ceremony. If you have the time, of course. There’s cake!”
I say I do, and she leads me to the room referred to as the library, a small office with chairs, books, and a coffee table. I see only Karen*, the woman who works for the shelter and assists in workshop, sitting and smiling knowingly. Out from beneath the chairs, the kids emerge, shout, “Boo!”
“They’ve been looking out the window at every car that drove by. ‘Is that Lyndsay? Is that Lyndsay?’” she says. “They wanted to surprise you.”
You wouldn’t know these kids endured trauma by the looks on their faces: glowing, laughing because they surprised me.
The turnover rate for these families is give or take two months. I’ve taught twelve children from the home and crisis center over ten weeks, none for more than four sessions. Most of that time is spent showing the children that they can trust me, and next, that their ideas aren’t stupid. Some start stories, but much like their own, they may not get resolved anytime soon.
I’m not typically privy to where families go next. One boy, eleven and brazen, said he hated writing and why was I wasting his time? He apologized, but I understood: He’d endured trauma, witnessed abuse, and as he’d learned that morning, his mother had nowhere to take them once their time ended at the shelter. These children bring entirely turbulent lives into workshop. Here, while my job is still to teach literacy and nuanced craft lessons, I devote most of my energy and purpose to facilitating a space in which they can be children for an hour. They laugh and tell stories about time travel and hide under chairs to surprise me. Here, there is no right or wrong or angry fathers.
That’s what people want to know: do the children process their trauma in workshop? They do, but sometimes it comes out sideways. The brazen eleven-year-old boy would rant about his father, dig his pen into his Writopia notebook, and scribble shapes across the page. With Jasmine, though, it is different. She loves her father and speaks fondly of their visits. They’d gone to the beach recently. We bonded because I mentioned my parents divorced. That’s what her parents were doing, she says. Divorcing.
After 7:00, the receptionist enters to say the ceremony will start soon. Ceremony by definition is formal, but feels hyperbolic for what this night entails: The other mothers and children gather around a small square table with three seats. The receptionist says this is her first time leading the ritual and will we bear with her? Jasmine’s mom speaks Spanish, so the toast is read in broken Spanish before read in its original English. Afterwards, we applaud, cut the grocery store cake, and the family is gifted presents from the staff (doll clothes for the daughter, toiletries for her mom). I cannot read the emotions. It is anticlimactic.
Jasmine’s mom leans across the table to me. “You teach writing?”
I nod and smile. Yes.
Jasmine interrupts. “Mom, her parents got divorced, too!”
Jasmine’s mom’s eyebrows raise. “Can she keep in touch with you?”
My parents divorced when I was in college in an amicable split I could only wish for other families. I don’t tell Jasmine that — I know my experience isn’t the point. Whether she ever reaches out or not, Jasmine needs to know she’s safe, and that a young woman can grow up to accomplish what she wants, despite her parents’ marriage. I give Jasmine my business card, a hardcover Writopia notebook, and a hot pink Writopia pen. I hope to hear from her. As of this writing, I haven’t, but I hope she’s still safe.
* Names have been changed.
Lyndsay Hall is the Program Manager and Head Instructor at Writopia Lab Los Angeles. Lyndsay earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, where she worked as the managing editor of the program’s literary journal. Her narrative essays, poetry, and journalism have appeared in online and print journals, such as Little Fiction | Big Truths, juked, Lunch Ticket, b(OINK),The Avalon Literary Review, xoJane, Design District Magazine, and elsewhere.