Giving truth to Memphis youth
By Nithila Ramesh
White Station High School
For many women, one of the first stories they remember always begins with once upon a time. Some might throw in a princess in distress, a fierce dragon, and a handsome prince. Others might only remember an empty feeling.
One skilled woman strives to bring out the story in all women, whether they know it’s there or not.
“Everybody has a story,” said writer and storyteller Elaine Blanchard— her bubbly voice ringing out—to the ears of Teen Appeal reporters. A small yet exuberant woman, they could feel the depth of her passion from the moment she spoke.
Blanchard’s talent for storytelling has taken her places she never imagined she’d end up. And when asked what inspired her to pursue her interest, she began, of course, to tell her own story.
As a young girl, Blanchard was always craning her neck over the fence, dying to see what the neighbors were up to. Nothing was more interesting than exploring beyond her backyard.
One day, she came across a strange woman in the next lot, a woman “who wore a big, big hat. Big enough to cover her face and everything else,” Blanchard said.
The storyteller’s inspiration to pursue her dream was the strange women, Dr. Abbott, a retired professor from the local university in Florida. Through the time they spent together, she taught Blanchard the most influential lesson she’d learn—the power of a good neighbor.
Years later with that lesson, Blanchard created her creative writing program, Prison Stories.
Blanchard started the program three years ago, in 2010. She designed the program as an experiment for the Shelby County Division of Corrections here in Memphis.
“I had a theory,” she explained. “Through the use of creative writing and group reading, I could get these women to open up and trust each other with the stories they wanted to tell. I could bring back the human part of them many of us on the outside have forgotten.”
Starting off with a four-month course, Blanchard and 12 female inmates would meet twice a week, quietly talking and writing their stories. The women were initially skeptical, but as the weeks went by, they realized the opportunity they had.
Blanchard assigned them essays, papers, and when they would convene, the women would discuss their stories and the memories behind them.
Out they came, the stories of childhood, hope, tragedy, and forgiveness. The need to be heard overcame the insecurities, and the women were finally given a chance to cultivate their creative and emotional sides.
“We all want to be heard, we all want to be noticed, and we all want the stories we tell to be valued,” said Blanchard.
Towards the end of the four-month period, Blanchard wanted the women to realize that their stories can make an impact on the community, and that what they have to say truly matters.
The writer partnered with the Voices of the South, a theater organization she knew could bring the women’s stories to life. Together, with the talent of six professional actors and actresses, Blanchard began to see her vision fall into place.
There are three performances for each set of twelve women: one is to be performed in the jail for the inmates, another one for the family and friends of the inmates, and the last one for the general public.
Months of hard work and hope lead to this moment. Held in the basement of the First Congressional Church, it is the last performance. Family, friends, and even the inmates themselves witness it all coming together.
Through her attentiveness to detail, Blanchard has made sure that each woman feels the power of the story when told in her own voice. Based on the awestruck looks of the authors themselves, its apparent the tough shell has finally been broken.
And as the night goes on, those twelve women along with Blanchard will never be the same again.
All too soon, the play is over, and the audience leaps to their feet. The women, suddenly thrust into attention and appreciation, are near tears; they are so moved at being given the chance to have someone listen to them and the sum of their experiences.
“It’s always possible to let the people around us know they matter, simply by listening to their stories.” said Blanchard.
Since life in jail is heavily regimented, the women are almost never given the chance at standing out. Being identified by a prison number is the only individuality they’re familiar with.
From her experience as an award-winning minister, Blanchard knows how it feels to be given a second chance.
“Just because we make a mistake doesn’t mean we are a mistake,” Blanchard said.
The final words of her story left Teen Appeal reporters in thought. Each reporter was impacted differently, and according to one student reporter, her thinking as a whole has changed.
“I realized they’re just like you and me. They have feelings, problems, and questions like we do,” said Tavia Payne, a junior at Central High School.
“I feel that people in prison, regardless of the crime they’ve committed, should be given the chance to express themselves creatively,” added 11th grader Kayla Freeman, who attends Hollis F. Price.
Now, because of Blanchard’s life changing lesson, many women are beginning to remember their first story, and the life before the once upon a time.