Shelley Savren ended her poetry workshop Thursday the way she always does: She asked for volunteers to stand before the class and read their work.
In this case, the students were 15 boys and girls in custody at Colston Center, Ventura's juvenile-detention facility. Teen-agers here are locked up for offenses ranging from drug busts and parole violations to violent assaults.
An 18-year-old named Tony ambled to the front and began reading "She was Someone Special," an ode to a favorite grandmother who died last year. Halfway through his free verse, Tony stopped suddenly and put his paper down.
"I can't read this," he said, his voice catching.
Savren quickly stepped in to finish Tony's piece while the teen-ager walked outside to privately weep. When Savren finished, the class quietly applauded. Some wiped their eyes.
It was a scene repeated several times Thursday, as students in various classes read their poetry. And it is just the response that Savren wants.
"You want to draw emotion from somebody," she said. "For him to get up in front of this class, in front of his 'homies,' and read his own poetry is truly amazing."
Savren is Ventura County's coordinator for a program called California Poets in the Schools. The private, nonprofit arts foundation based in San Francisco seeks to put published poets in the classroom to encourage students to explore inner feelings through literature.
Each 15-student class at Colston Center received 12 lessons in the workshop, she said. The $5,600 workshop cost was funded jointly by the city of Ventura, the county superintendent of schools office and the poetry foundation, Savren said.
Youths at Colston look forward to the workshop, which allows them to strip bare emotions they normally keep hidden, said Colston English teacher Linda Bugaj. For some, it may also uncover hidden talents that can turn hardened street youths into productive citizens, she said. "As a society, we have to decide if we want to continue warehousing these and building more prisons, or if we should try early on to engage their interest in something meaningful to them."
Savren, who teaches literature at Oxnard College, is one of five poets in Ventura County who are available to teach workshops. For more information, call 986-5800, Ext. 1951.