Everyone has a story.
POPS (Pain of the Prison System) is my story. 
For a long time I felt trapped and didn’t know how to escape my thoughts, many of which frighten me: the memories of my parents arguing with each other; my grandmother passing away; when I was bullied; suffering from depression; a heartbreak; my dad and I arguing over stupid stuff; my learning disabilities and bad choices I made.
I would sneak out, talk back, shut people out. 
I punished myself with never ending “what if’s,” “remember when,” and
“I regret that.”
I felt as though I couldn’t tell anyone about anything. Plus, I assumed no one would understand or care. Or worse, they would think I was weak or just trying to gain attention.
Then, one Wednesday during my sophomore year at Venice High School I wandered into a POPS meeting. At lunch. In room 120.
On the board someone had written “First we eat.”
That intrigued me.
And two steps further into the room I saw a feast of salads, pasta, chocolate croissants, and platters of pineapple, grapes, and cantaloupe.
I ate.
And ate.
Oh yeah. And there were exotic dark breads and baguettes from Le Pain Quotidien and bagels and M&M encrusted cookies from Panera Bread.
The assembled students talked about their lives, like what a family would or should do. 
The club, POPS, is a support group for students whose lives have been impacted by incarceration, and it’s run at Venice by Amy and Danziger. They’re a married couple. Danziger’s my English teacher. Amy is a professional writer. I had met her once before. When he introduced me, he told her I was a terrific writer.
At the meeting Danziger passed out paper and pens and told us to write. About anything.
I wrote and I wrote about things that had been bottled up inside me for years. All these feelings that I had stuffed deep inside exploded onto the page. 
That was the moment I realized that writing was my passion.
I wrote about hurt; the people who had hurt me; how I’d hurt myself.
I felt as if that one writing session, that one paper is what cured me. Or began to heal me.
The other POPS students wrote too. Real feelings, truthful things spilled out onto their pages. Here it was okay to write what you felt. No one said “just get over it”
At these lunch meetings I feel safe, my thoughts are safe. I can write about anything. Free of judgement.
Outside the room I felt no one really cared because I was just a teenager.
But this was new. A place where I could come and feel multiple emotions cascading over one another in the same moment. Here, I felt happy, relieved, safe, loved.
And anyone who wanted could read their work aloud.
It was amazing that people like Kat, Veronica, Anthony, and Bianca stood at the podium and read essays about fathers who were in and out of prisons; fathers who refused to give up the gang life; teenagers being busted for selling weed; a family driving 24 straight hours to visit a son/brother in prison.
I learned that some of those who smile the brightest hurt the most.
I instantly respected them for that. 
Danziger said, “Everyone has a story. Or a lot of stories.”
My POPS family and I wrote our stories and poems, then emailed them to Amy who cleaned up our grammar, and they were anthologized in Ghetto by the Sea.
When I held that book in my hand I realized that we all have stories and we are never truly alone. And that our innermost thoughts need to be released onto the page. And into the world.
I am part of that book.
And that’s how POPS saved me.
My best friend, Alyssa, once said, “You were there, but not really there.”
She was right. I was not myself for a large chunk of my life.
And my other best friend, John, used to tell me, “Don’t let the negativity get in your way.” I listened to his words but never knew what actions to take to deal with my problems.
Until I walked into POPS. 
Every Wednesday at 1:29 p.m. in Room 120, I am myself again.
The me I’m supposed to be.
My true self.
The one I love.

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