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Through My Pen I Speak: Words of Former Gang Members

In large loopy lines that skip across the page, a 13 year old girl bends her head and curls her hand to shield the letters on the once-pale parchment. The notebook is cracked and covered with doodles. The binding, held together with thick metal tape, is scratched with song lyrics. But inside the words are sacred.

“I’m not going to tell you how I joined and got out detail for detail, just the important facts,” she writes. “Where we lived was a city with a whole lot of Crips. My sisters were in [the gang] and I was with them every day. I liked the way they rolled as a clique.”

And this is how it starts. I read the words over and over in that dusty, desert classroom. I am 22, recently graduated from college, and a teacher in a deeply poor, under-resourced school. My students range in age from 11-15 and many have been expelled from other schools because of their behavior, including possession of drugs or weapons.

She is concentrating hard. Her pen rips the paper. “It was real dark. Nervously I got out of the car. Standing there in the alley were all these Crips. My sister looks at me and said, ‘You made your choice and this is what you wanted, so now you’ve got it.’ She snapped her fingers and they all started attacking me. It lasted about five minutes. I couldn’t get up I was so bruised…”

Over the course of several months, I learn through small revelations that several of my students are former gang members. I create a secret project in which they write anonymous letters to each other. They inscribe the stories in their journals and I transfer them to the computer, smoothing out the grammar and removing identifying details before redistributing them.

“Tears started coming down my eyes. I heard police sirens and ambulances coming, but I ignored them. I picked up the blade, blood and all, just all on me. Then, in the background, I hear ‘Put your hands up and drop the blade.’ So I do. It was all like a dream. I was riding in the back of the police car, just in shock, like what the hell happened.”

I leave the classroom after a year of teaching with a heavy heart, feeling as if I am abandoning my students. My gang notes project has been one of the few highlights of the year, the ink of their pens: an indelible seal on my heart. Through it, the students, who start the year as lone wolves, form a pack and - deciding to reveal themselves - create a community that helps them heal and move forward.

In my previous journal entry (, I wrote about using the web to help connect Israelis and Palestinians across borders, reaching beyond the walls of our current realities to expand our worldviews. Teaching is another chapter in my personal history that has informed my life and values, eventually leading me to WorldPulse. I am a listener and a connector, warping and wefting the stories of women’s lives.

* Please note: this is not meant to be a journalistic piece. Aspects of this story have been modified due to the word limit and to enhance storytelling.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring girls greater access to education which will transform their lives, their families, and communities. The Girls Transform Campaign elicits insightful content from young women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as women, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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libudsuroy's picture

Dear Maya, weaver of words

Dear Maya, weaver of words and gestures! It is dawn here in my country, and I wake up to dip into your story's depths. Thanks for this heart-warming story!

libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Maya Norton's picture


If it was dawn when you wrote your comment (which I saw come it but it was too late to respond), then it must be midnight now. I enjoy the idea of the cycles of our days and lives on different sides of the earth. Oh, the power of connectivity and synchronicity.

Warm wishes,

~ Maya

Stacey Rozen's picture

Maya, your inspiring

Maya, your inspiring facilitation of the process of exchanging thought provoking notes sounds as if it was lastingly impactfull long after your leaving. Even if it touched just one long term, what a vital lesson to learn for both teacher and student.

Ps: do you know of the Postsecret project? Similar in intent.


Maya Norton's picture


Re. PostSecret - Hmm, that's interesting, Stacey. I hadn't thought of it like that but I can see how you get that feel from it.

Appreciate your thoughts.

~ Maya

Taha Mirani's picture

Dear Maya. You have an

Dear Maya. You have an amazing post. I loved your way of expressing things. Beautiful.

More power to you.


Taha Mirani

Maya Norton's picture

Thank you so much, dear Taha.

Thank you so much, dear Taha.


~ Maya

Sharontina's picture

Last post

Dear Maya,

You know? as i was going to wind up for today i saw yours. Just like your previous one this piece also will keep me awake on bed picturizing those words you have woven too painful in front of me. Your pen has more power indeed.

Much love and care

Merlin Sharontina

Maya Norton's picture

Thank you, Sharontina. I just

Thank you, Sharontina. I just commented on your post, also on a powerful and painful issue.

In sisterhood, unity, and friendship,

~ Maya

William's picture

World Pulse community

Dear Maya, thank you for sharing your article.You seem to be using many tools to build community and I hope World Pulse is a major one. Keep up the fine work you are doing.
William (U.S.)

Maya Norton's picture


Thank you, William. I appreciate your words and learning from your experience as a long-time WorldPulse contributor. There are so many resources that WorldPulse has to share, I am blessed to have found it.

I just wrote to you on your 2008 post about microfinance with the idea of setting up a WorldPulse loan team on, which I'd be happy to captain. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thanks for listening, William, and for your support of women and girls.


~ Maya

Aminah's picture

My heart just wept for them.

What kind of life are they having. What young people go through in other far away places.
Gangs, drugs, abuse, when they should really be enjoying their life, lauging, running around, cracking jokes, just having a simple uncomplicated life.


So glad you played a significant role in easing their journey. Do keep sharing.



Maya Norton's picture

Thank you kindly, Aminah.

Thank you kindly, Aminah. Sometimes life can be a real struggle. For some of my students, the ultimate bravery was the courage to keep going and keep trying day after day.

When I was younger, I thought "normal," was an insult, but now that I am older, I see an average life as something to strive for as a baseline (friends, family, a good job). Our strength takes root from there.

Warm wishes, peaceful one.

~ Maya

Phionah Musumba's picture


Hey, Maya,
This is a truly inspiring, insightful post. I have no words to express the feeling. Keep up the good work.
Warmest regards,

Centre for Disadvantaged Girls, Kenya

Maya Norton's picture


Warm thanks for your thoughts, Phy.

Take care,

~ Maya

Phionah Musumba's picture


Anytime, sister.
All the best,

Centre for Disadvantaged Girls, Kenya

Maya Norton's picture



: )

~ Maya

Phionah Musumba's picture

Sister, Sister!

Maya, Maya!
I love happy faces.
: )

Centre for Disadvantaged Girls, Kenya

kpisinski's picture


I am filled with gratitude you exist and use your empathy and skills to help those around you. Good luck to you!


Maya Norton's picture

Wow, thank you, Kpisinski.

Wow, thank you, Kpisinski.

Curious - which Easthampton in the US are you from, if you don't mind saying?

Thank you for reading and listening.
Warm wishes,

~ Maya

bhavna's picture


Dear Maya, how come I have not seen this writeup earlier? anyway late but not too late, I hope :)
Its a beautiful written piece, the words of these children, are so innocent, it just pierce through! Hope this world becomes a better place for the our future generation.
Kudos to you for being a part of their miserable journey and imparting them some relief!


Maya Norton's picture


Thanks very much, Bhavna. I appreciated your kind words and am glad you were able to connect with the piece. It's never too late.

As for you, I've just left a comment on your story here ( about "voicing the un-voiced." What a powerful piece. I look forward to reading you more.

In friendship,

~ Maya

antonia.h.'s picture

This was so beautiful, both

This was so beautiful, both in content and form! It seems like you really had an impact on those kids, even though you feel it wasn't enough time. You managed to create among them a sense of belonging to a community, where similar past experiences and pain acted as a link connecting them. You really seem to be good at teaching! Beautiful! :)

Maya Norton's picture

Thanks for your kind words,

Thanks for your kind words, Antonia. You're right in that I don't feel like I honored them sufficiently.

I really appreciate your message.

~ Maya

amymorros's picture

Very Moving

I appreciate the time and effort you put into this very personal & moving story about your experience teaching. Many of us will never have that one-on-one experience like you and it is very valuable to read about it from your perspective.

I also find your work in Israel very interesting. I'll see you on Twitter @amyinstl


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