To fully understand Wendy Brown-Baez as a teacher, you must begin with a bus. Start with a bus that travels to prisons, hospitals, high schools, churches, and libraries, for Wendy goes to all of those places and she gets does so via the crowded seats of a city bus. She fills her tote bag with books and writings (others and her own), an e-reader, copies of The Sun, Poet’s & Writers, and a bag of peanut M&M’s. She hauls her supplies from the suburbs to the city center, to the far margins of the metro—sometimes all in one day.
Do you realize how far outside of town most prisons are situated? Do you know how hard it must be to face a room full of people who’ve just lost a loved one to suicide? Nothing about Wendy’s work is simple. Add to the mix the fact that she teaches for little or no compensation and it’s easy to understand how, if you weren’t wise-hearted and determined, it might be easier to just stay home.
Yet Wendy gets on the bus. She’s knocked on my door countless times en route to one prison or another through our shared work with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. To arrive on time, Wendy sometimes leave her house at six AM and travels for over an hour before walking blocks to the next bus, or train, or coworker that will ferry her to the final leg of her trip. Despite such complications, she’s the first to volunteer for a class. She is never late. She never complains. To be sure, if you offer her a ride home, she will say yes before the offer is fully out of your mouth. Wendy does not love the bus. I don’t think she enjoys hauling ingredients for a group’s potluck (nachos) or waiting under awnings on winter days (20 below), or the profanity that flies out of kids’ mouths (@#*!). (The later she always mentions to me after I’ve let a few words slip myself.) She’s the tenderest-made-of-steel woman I’ve met; nothing stops her from getting to her classes. Not even security protocol in a maximum-security prison.
When Wendy teaches with MPWW, her journey doesn’t end when she arrives at the facility. Her next obstacle is to clear security. The corrections officer checks her bag. Checks her ID. Send her through the metal detector. Wands her hip. Stamps her hand. Signs her in. Opens the gates. Her journey may have begun three hours prior, but she is only just now getting close to seeing her students.
When Wendy does finally walk through the door of her classroom, her students often act as though they are the ones who have traveled far to reach this moment. They experience their time in Wendy’s writing classes as their journey—as of course they should, as of course it is. She makes sure it’s so. She checks her stress at the door and holds space for people in tangible ways. She forms a circle, lets participants know what to expect, and begins by handing out a poem. The poem is carefully chosen, literature that Wendy offers as both prompt and gift.
Look, will you, at the curated list of poets in this book: Kim Addonizio, Edward Hirsch, Dorianne Laux, Naomi Shahib Nye, Mark Doty, among many others. This is a teacher who demands gravity and art from her teaching tools, who hand-selects poems that will sing for the people in the room, whether these people are children or the dying or incarcerated. She selects poems, I should say, that acknowledge wounds and affirm our humanity.
Then she lets the poems do their work. Her classes quite deliberately offer poetry as a portal to what Camus calls “a trek through the detours of art to recapture those one or two moments when [our] heart first opened.” Her classroom is quiet, and the pathway is laid in words by word by stanza. It’s then that Wendy invites students to write, and hear, and be heard. Or to be silent. In that invitation, participants begin to discover the work they’re there to do.
Many of Wendy’s students have experienced abuse, addiction, death, suicide, cancer and on and on. For many, this may be the first time their stories have made it fully to their consciousness, let alone the page. They may uncover and write of their resentment about caring for a terminally ill loved one. Being thrown out on the street. Of losing a daughter to suicide. Of their own violent crimes and remorse. Wendy has undoubtedly heard stories about how the victim became the perpetrator or how fathers who were left have left their sons. It isn’t easy work.
All the while, Wendy sits up straight with quiet strength—full of patience, absent of judgment. It’s a hallmark of her teaching. Her students notice this. While it may sound like a simple thing, I’d argue it’s what allows them to first engage and later persist as writers. One of her students, Dara, once wrote in an evaluation that Wendy’s classroom felt safe because, she “took control of the room with a strong, yet gentle voice, which commanded respect and showed authority.” That’s nice in any class, but it’s especially important in a prison. Another student, Wally, an experienced writer in our program, said he took Wendy’s class hoping just to be given space to write. He didn’t expect craft lessons to sneak up from the surface of their discussions each time the group met, but they did, and it’s had a powerful impact on his writing. Another student, Tony, a man who has taken many, many classes with Wendy, once stood before a room of a hundred onlookers at his class reading and said: “Wendy is amazing. This woman can handle anything.” And it’s touching in part because he was three times her size but drawing on her strength. Mostly it was moving because it was so clearly true.
When I first started traipsing through Minnesota’s prisons with Wendy, I assumed her sturdy calm came from working with such a wide range of students. She’s the only writer I’ve known who has experience working with the dying and bereaved, at-risk kids, shattered parents, battered women, and men convicted of abuse. She’s taught people from ages fourteen to ninety. This month alone, Wendy will teach a class of adult women at Shakopee Prison, a mixed community of students and family members in the wake of a suicide at an at-risk high school, and religion education to a multi-age class. While I’m sure that range and experience explains some of her magic, Wendy’s true gift comes from something deeper than practice and more earth-worn than pedagogy. Hers is the sort of calm that can’t be taught or borrowed or undone, this deeply centered, unshakeable confidence that comes from life experience.
It was in reading HEART ON THE PAGE that I finally and fully understood Wendy’s teaching. Her approach to writing—while full of craft tools and inventive prompts—is not born in the academy. Thank goodness for that because we need all types. It’s rooted in life, and loss and, importantly, the will to find a path back to light. Before she was teaching all over the state of Minnesota, Wendy was on the streets, in homelessness, as part of a commune lost in the deserts of Israel. She suffered the death of a partner and a son. Enduring even one of these things might have decimated most of us. Wendy’s spirit isn’t the sort to curl up in fetal position and turn out the lights.
“Life wanted life,” Robert Hass says.
“We have to survive,” Cheryl Strayed reminds us, “We have to.”
And so she has. Life wanted life. For Wendy, rebuilding happened through words. She wrote her way back, not just to surviving, but to vibrancy. She developed a writing practice, which is to say, she developed a practice of turning pain into art. Out of that process we see Wendy’s heart-battered strength. Can there be any greater generosity than to make from your tragedies something that benefits others? Her peace, as I see it, comes not just from surviving, but from weaving a luminous life after loss. She proceeds with an almost unshakable certainty that, come what may, words will always repair.
This is what fills her classroom. It’s what her students speak of when they fill out evaluations and thank her behind the podium of their class readings. Her students have inherited Wendy’s very faith. They accept her resilience and her craft guidance and her quiet resolve and they set their own pens to work. Almost without exception, they write. Even when their resources are worn thin, they write into the raw spots as writers must. Which is all to say, they borrow Wendy’s stubborn grace until they find their own. And then they’re off.
And so is Wendy, to her next class: at an elementary school, a homeless shelter, a hospital. She’ll load her tote bag and throw it over her arm, pay the bus fare, gather participants into a circle, share a poem, and offer her attention. What she teaches people, as well as what they’ve taught her, is inside these pages. Reading this book won’t just make you a better teacher or a better writer—though it will do that. It will make you a more capacious human.
Read Wendy’s story. Heed her advice. She’s put in a lot of miles to learn and live so deeply and well. In fact, she’s traveled more than anyone I know.
Jennifer Bowen Hicks
Founder, Artistic Director, Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop