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In the spring of 2016, thanks to support from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, my eleventh-grade AP English students at St. Bernard High School in the Playa del Rey neighborhood of Los Angeles were able to participate in an intergenerational writing workshop with senior citizens, including World War II veterans.
We wanted to create an opportunity for seniors and teens to listen to one another and build a bridge across the generations that separate them. Poet and educator Traci Kato-Kiriyama led three after-school workshops with my students at St. Bernard. Simultaneously, Angela Peñaredondo led a workshop across town for a group of seniors associated with the Filipino American Service Group.
Kato-Kiriyama asked the students to write a letter to their future grandchildren beginning with this sentence: “Read this carefully. There are things you need to know about where you came from.” The students responded well, writing heartfelt letters about their lives and the history of their families. As powerful as this first session was, it was in the second session that the magic happened.
Kato-Kiriyama was assisted in the second workshop by Melissa Rae Sipin, Poets & Writers’ McCrindle Foundation Readings &Workshops Fellow. Sipin is a writer and educator whose own grandfather was a Filipino American World War II veteran who died without receiving his benefits. She brought audio files from the senior writers’ session with Peñaredondo and played them while Kato-Kiriyama, the students, and I listened in amazement. Kato-Kiriyama then asked the students to write in response to what they heard. The story, told by ninety-two-year-old Franco F. Arcebal, really touched the students. He spoke about being a prisoner of war of the Imperial Japanese Army. “I was the most severely tortured,” he said. “My body still remembers. Sometimes I want to forget. But this body, it remembers.”
The students wrote thoughtful responses. One, Ulises Godoy, wrote, “Thank you, Big Brother, for telling us the story your body wanted to forget.” Another, Camille Jacome, wrote, “I should thank you for your service, but I’d rather thank you for the strength.” And Yonathan Dereje wrote, “Your experience made you stronger and keeps you stronger and teaches me how to be strong.”
A few weeks later we organized a reading at Beyond Baroque that included my eleventh-grade students and seniors such as Arcebal, along with Kato-Kiriyama, Peñaredondo, and Sipin. A chapbook that included writing from both groups was published and distributed, and it was met with great enthusiasm. My students were fundamentally changed by the experience and more confident with their writing and presenting it publicly. It was a high point of the school year.
One student, Rosalinda Flores, was especially inspired. She wrote in an e-mail to me shortly after the workshop: “Hearing and even sharing our stories, as if we were close in age, showed me that we all face obstacles. We are all the same in the end. We are human. We feel, we go through real struggles, but most of all, we all have the body that hides the struggles that we should embrace. Like an open wound that turns into a scab, then soon after turns into a scar. That scar is our story. Our scars are filled with memories of happiness and troubles that we each encounter.”
Mike Sonksen, aka Mike the Poet, is a third-generation Los Angeles native acclaimed for his poetry performances and for mentoring teen writers. His latest book, Poetics of Location, was recently published by Writ Large Press. His work celebrates literary Los Angeles.