A collaboration between Harpswell Coastal Academy and The Telling Room produced “Somehow I Knew What to Do,” a collection of student-written personal narratives. Among those involved were, standing from left, student Caleb O’Brien, humanities teacher Whitney Conway, and student Eileen Belch. Seated from left are Jenny O’Connell of The Telling Room, and student Megan Moore. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BRUNSWICK — Tasked last fall with telling a personal story from his young life, Harpswell Coastal Academy junior Caleb O’Brien recalled a friend who had been hit by a car and killed. He had been walking to Lewiston Middle School to avoid being bullied on the bus.

The 2017 death of Jayden Cho-Sargent, which occurred while O’Brien was in eighth grade, is one of 11 stories and poems newly published in “Somehow I Knew What to Do: Personal Narratives from Harpswell Coastal Academy.”

“He was one of my really good friends,” said O’Brien in his personal narrative, “Jayden Cho Sargent; My Dearest Regrets.” He recalls a “friend who was kind, and had a strong connection with me. He was constantly bullied, and we fought the bullying together. He was generous beyond words. He was really funny. Always did stupid things to crack us up.”

The tragedy impacted O’Brien deeply, and he makes sure never to leave anyone out at his lunch table. “If you can’t fit, we’ll make room,” he wrote.

Another academy student, Harland Norcutt, had always been home-schooled and felt trepidatious as he walked into his seventh grade classroom for the first time at Harpswell Coastal Academy, concerned that he’d be deemed different from everyone else.

“It was a pretty important day of my life,” Norcutt, now a sophomore, said. “That was the start of most of my social experiences … My education took a very different turn at that point.”


It was a day significant enough that when asked in Whitney Conway’s humanities class to come up with a personal story to share, Norcutt’s thoughts went back to that day, and the friendships he was thankful to find in a new setting.

The public charter school with campuses in Harpswell and Brunswick last fall brought in Jenny O’Connell, a teaching artist at The Telling Room, along with other teaching artists and volunteers, to work with Conway’s students. The school’s 12-session collaboration with the Portland-based Telling Room – an organization dedicated to empowering youth aged 6-18 through writing, helping them to “share their voices with the world” – reflected the academy’s focus on personal narrative writing during its first trimester, Conway said.

Forty copies of the book have been published and are available by contacting The Telling Room at 774-6064 or writers@tellingroom.org.

The experience was new for Norcutt; his was a story the Freeport teenager hadn’t told to many people.

Being able to tell more people through this is a really cool thing to be able to do,” Norcutt said, and he hopes other youth undergoing the same tradition he went through can read his experience and relate to it, he said.

“Personal narrative is a really powerful form of writing, because there can be so many things,” O’Connell said. “In this book, there are stories about dreams; what they want their futures to look like. There are stories that are airing emotions, or feelings. There are all of the weird and funny details that make up lives.”

The book’s title comes from a line in Lily Griffin’s story of that name, the last in the book, since it matches the themes of the story within the book, O’Connell said. In the tale, Griffin recounts her sadness watching her beloved grandfather’s mental and physical health decline, and visiting him in a nursing home for the final time.

Conway said she was “delighted to be … alongside my students under the consummate flexibility and nurturing ways of Jenny and the rest of the folks at The Telling Room. And coaching them, and guiding them to be able to find their own stories that needed to be told.

“It was a really beautiful experience for me … to watch them fly and share their stories,” Conway added.

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