"It was great, because we could write whatever we wanted to, basically," said Rafael, who attended three workshops and has since reentered Cleveland High School. "Andrew [Epstein] never acted like we were dumb kids writing about dumb stuff. It was like we had something important to say that needed to be heard."
The idea, said Epstein, is to not limit what anyone writes about, or how they write it. These are stories and poems about street shootings, sex parties, heroin and schools depicted as "torture chambers," where the students are "slabs of meat." The language is so profane that much of it can't be reproduced in mainstream publications.
Critics--some within the agency that runs the program--ask how such writing is preparing youths to enter the job market. Parents and some community members have raged after reading copies of "The Boot," claiming to have discovered in its pages children whom they don't even want to recognize and a glorification of the violence they fear eventually will kill them.
"The reaction has ranged from shocked and appalled to enthusiastic. I've had some very tense confrontations with parents," Epstein said.
"The theme of the workshop is finding your voice in writing. So a lot of what we have them explore is how to make their writing sound like themselves. At first, they really go off the deep end. All of a sudden they can cuss on paper, and they do. Then, they begin to realize that the stuff in between the profanity are the stories.
"The people at the readings are just about blown away," he said, "impressed by the honesty and the starkness and the realness of the writing. I think they [the students] begin to realize how important what they say and what they write is, and how powerful it can be."
"All Kenyhata could do was sit there and stare at me. He had the look of someone who just had a piece of his heart torn apart," Chantel Serrano wrote of the day she told her boyfriend she'd had an abortion. "I went on to ask him, 'What could you have done for me and your child? . . . You've already slipped through the cracks.' "
Serrano, 20, sits in the living room she shares with a new boyfriend and a baby--the product of her third unplanned pregnancy. The baby sits in an infant seat in the center of the bare floor. The boyfriend takes dozens of phone calls at the kitchen table, ordering Serrano to fetch this or that as he talks. A procession of young men knock at the door and file into the kitchen, then go out again.
Serrano sighs and files her three-inch nails. "Everything in that story is true," she says. "I can't comprehend giving life to my child and being on crack and not doing anything for my child except smoking his life away. . . . I can't say I'm financially prepared for this child now, but I am mentally prepared. From Day 1, I have taken care of this child by myself."
Serrano said the workshop helped get her back in a high school equivalency program, from which she expects to earn her diploma within a year. Then she wants to go to Puerto Rico, where her parents are from, and open a nail salon and a dance club.
Writing for "The Boot," Serrano says, she is able to talk about things she only has been able to think about.
"So much has happened to me in my life. I've seen people shot. I've been raped. I've seen people get raped. I think the only thing I haven't seen is somebody get decapitated. That's too much to see for a 20-year-old person. I can tell worse war stories than someone from Vietnam, and that's not right."
"The first time I met Aleki Keni was when my uncle Mac brought him over to my grandma's house. He was big, stalky, and had a clean-cut fade goin' on. He wore a shirt with a guy pumping iron. A moustache and goatee hung below these thick eyebrows. He was like my grandma's son. Every time he comes into her house, he says, 'Hi, Mom,' to my grandma. She always smiles when he says that. Then she says, 'Hi, Son,' with a fat smile like she just seen God."
Fotu Ativalu, 16, went on in his story, "Fate of the Hood," to describe how Aleki was shot to death. Fotu happened on the scene, not realizing it was his grandmother's nephew. "I seen blood all over the ground. It looked like someone emptied out 40 bottles of ketchup," he wrote. "I remember how the police sat back and watched us, drinking coffee. I remember feeling like killing all the mens . . . in uniform."
Both Fotu and his brother, Ahsan, 14, enrolled in the workshop last summer to help support the family. Fotu, whose native language is Samoan, had fallen two grades behind in school, struggling to learn English. "They told me you could write stories and poems, and I thought, 'Hey, try it out.' I thought it was time for me to do something positive for myself."