Stay Eye to Eye With Me, Can’t you See?

Member “Mrs. Kate” Carpenter is a folksinger, songwriter & storyteller from Callahan, FL. She shared a recent experience with us she had teaching below. It is a wonderful reminder of the power of music to connect.

Recently I was skyrocketed out of my comfort zone. I was asked to teach songwriting to youthful drug offenders in a Department of Juvenile Justice residency in Jacksonville, FL.

Though I’ve been writing music for over 40 years, I’ve only taught songwriting a handful of times. I took the job on faith, thinking I could do some good in the lives of these young men, ages 14-18.

I consulted with a couple of friends of mine who have taught similar residencies.  I took notes and developed a plan.  I had to teach for 10 hours in the course of a couple of weeks.

It was never the same twice. They switched rooms on me; they switched groups on me. Supplies were hard to come by, and nametags non-existent. I had bright, creative boys in my class, and kids that looked dead, even though alive.

Their homework assignment for session 3 was to write a song or rap and share it with the group. I was totally unprepared for the passionate explosion of creativity that blasted forth. Taking turns, the boys belted out their raps.   The energy rose to a fever pitch as they performed. At one point 4 boys were reciting the same rap in unison dancing, spinning and jumping all over the floor. They were loud! They were passionate…and nearly out of control! You should have seen the looks on the guards’ faces. You should have seen the look on my face! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  

These kids knew their stuff. I stood in awe of their creativity and passionate performance chops. The rhythm, the creative rhymes, the intensity….it was all there.

I asked them, how do you learn each other’s raps? They told me that’s all they do at night in their cells. They aren’t allowed to have pencil and paper.  It dawned on me that they have developed their own oral culture.  Who needs a pen or computer to create?

A bright boy, William, wrote this in just a few minutes time:

Had a lot of time to think

Had a lot of shots to drink

My mind’s so heavy

Thought I was gonna sink

Don’t know I would do

I just can’t get a clue

The thought had crossed my mind

But I can’t pull it through.

So stay eye to eye with me.

Can’t you see?

I’m lost in a fantasy.

So let me out.

O let me out

And let me show you what my life is about.

I’m a 63 year old white lady. A doctor’s daughter, a preacher’s wife. I have never experienced life on the streets. I’ve never gone to bed hungry. I’ve been surrounded by the love of a stable family every day of my life.

In teaching this class, I learned that I don’t have to “be like them” to impart knowledge to them. And they don’t have to “be like me” for me to learn from them. I respected them and in turn, they respected me.

I sang songs that I had written, and had the young men write new verses for my songs. Being a children’s artist, I brought out my puppets and let them work them and write songs for them. They entered into my world and genre, just as I entered into theirs. I don’t know how it worked, but thank God, it did!

As I departed on the last day, I shook hands with the boys, and looked them in the eye.  I hope they saw love there.  And I hope they’ll ask me back. I’ve got a lot more to learn, and they have many more songs to write.




  1. What a powerful testimony, Miss Kate, of stepping out in faith so that others could have a richer experience, and WOW. So glad you said, yes, to this and I do hope you get invited back. It will give me courage to step out into the new…too….

  2. Ditto everything Dorothy said, three times. What an incredible teaching and bonding experience. The little I know about you is that you are a genuine person. Street kids see right through posers. I loved your line about you not having to be like them, and they like you. Being creative and using their minds is probably the best thing that they could do. Building a relationship and just loving them for who they are and not their past is a gift, and you have it. So bravo to you, Mrs. Kate!!

  3. Wow! I am so glad you shared this story of hope and courage (yours) and bridging the giant gaps in our culture. Continued blessings on your work!
    Joyce Rouse aka,

  4. thank you for sharing this Kate! what an amazing experience this must have been. and what a special reminder you have given me of how versatile our gift of music can be. always good to shake things up and step outside our comfort zones!

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