Proceed Like Green Lights: Crossing The Chasm through Poetry
How many names do you have? How many identities?
I love the clues people’s personal email addresses and Twitter handles give to the anchors of their sense of self. A number (birth year? high school football jersey? first apartment?), a zodiac sign, a childhood nickname.
When you are creating a public identity, what pieces of yourself do you choose to share? Does it depend on who will see them? We all feel safer keeping certain parts of ourselves out of public view; how do the boundaries of those safety zones get set?
Last February I participated in a poetry writing workshop for underserved 4th and 5th graders hosted by the community literacy program, 826DC. I worked with two nine-year-old boys, let’s call them Lucas and Ben, on the class assignment: create an alter ego, a Not-You, and then use the language you choose to describe them as the foundation of a poem.
Line by line we bounced energetically through the worksheet, answering questions about their fictitious personas. Profession? Both were rap stars. Signature style? Wearing boots, or all black. Sidekick? Ben chose his sister. Greatest fear? Lucas chose HIS sister.
“Guns, knives, money,” nine-year-old Ben declared with conviction. He had left blank his persona’s greatest fear, and for an addled second I thought I misunderstood.
“That’s your character’s fear?” I asked.
“No. That’s what he wants. That’s his dream.”
“Right, right, ok.”
Still processing, I fumbled for a recovery that didn’t betray the chasm I had just noticed, between his chair and mine.
“So, what IS your guy’s greatest fear?”
So suddenly I didn’t see the change happen, the eyes were sharp, the face hard, the mien angry and incredulous: “I’m not gonna tell you THAT.”
Ben already knew about the chasm. From where he sat, it was a moat.
When time came for volunteers to share their poems, his was the first hand up.
“Is there a stage to read from?” Ben wanted to know.
From the petite stair landing in a corner of the classroom he performed his poem with confidence and conviction, with emphasis, and rhythm, lost to anything but his own purpose.
A few weeks later 826DC started a three month poetry workshop series with 20 kids from four area high schools. The first night, I again found myself partnered with two boys, along with an experienced member of the 826 staff. First order of business: introductions.
The old hand from 826 jumped in. “I’m Mike,” he said.
“I’m John,” said the tall young man on my left, whose smile seemed shy but eager.
“Olivia,” I said, trying to sound open but not perky. I was so excited for this workshop series – a project I had been laboring to get underway for many months, driven by visions of bonding and life-changing growth. I didn’t want my enthusiastic hopes to spook the teenagers.
“John,” came a voice from deep in the hood of a gray sweatshirt.
“Wow, both Johns! Easy to remember,” Mike and I joked.
“I’m Ramon,” the first John said.
Mike didn’t blink. “Ok, Ramon, why don’t you get us started.”
Not every kid came every week. I didn’t go every week. There was a rotating roster of faces, and it took a while until there was a sense of togetherness.
John was there almost every time I went. I had barely seen his face from beneath the hood our first night writing together, but I always made a point of talking to him. I never once landed solid eye contact. He didn’t engage in the discussion around the exercises we did – childhood memories, synonyms – but when it was time to write he curled over his paper and the pen flew.
John’s school was the farthest from the workshop – east of the Anacostia river and a world away. He and his classmates came every week because their school librarian drove them herself. She’d sit quietly at a table or along the wall during the workshop, maybe duck out for a few minutes and reappear with a Chipotle bag, and then load her kids up and take them home. Every Wednesday.
Tiesha was the president of that school’s poetry club, and she never hesitated to share her work. Eyes alight, she would flip her hair over one shoulder with a curt head toss and let loose with a snapshot of her world. She recited words of love and grief, but what we heard was her determination.
Our final workshop we held at the Library of Congress, hosted by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who each year chooses the U.S. Poet Laureate from among our nation’s poetry greats. Bringing our kids through marbled, historied halls to read before Dr. Billington gave me goose bumps.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan engages in monthly conversations with students and teachers, to get an on-the-ground sense of how the system he oversees from Washington is really playing out in the classroom. The Library of Congress is a few blocks from his office, and he came by for half an hour to talk to the students about arts in school in general, and what they had gotten out of the poetry workshops.
The kids talked about learning the language, about their plans for college. Secretary Duncan asked for a poem; Tiesha took the microphone and told the world who she was.
I am not ghetto because ghetto is a place.
I am a human being
So let me proceed like green lights.
Where I come from we get more obituaries than diplomas to hang on the wall because everybody wants to deal so we all fall.
Do not judge me or label me because of where I come from.
I am a human being.
When the room started breathing again, Secretary Duncan thanked the students and posed for some pictures. John sidled up to him.
“Would you like something to eat?” John asked, directing his question to Secretary Duncan, but looking past him, with a nearly imperceptible nod toward the table of sandwiches and cookies on the other side of the room.
Duncan smiled; “How about you grab me a cookie and meet me at the door?”
The next week, I crossed the river to visit Tiesha at her school. She had been chosen to introduce First Lady Michelle Obama at a workshop for high school poets from across the country, hosted at the White House. It was late in the day, and I came straight from picking up my son from kindergarten. I hesitated to bring him, but then thought it would be cool for him to see Tiesha practicing her introduction, and to meet a teenager who had earned her way, through self-expression, onto a stage with the First Lady.
We were late getting to the high school; the road to the main entrance was blocked off by police cars. We hurriedly made our way through metal detectors and busy hallways.
Finally we were greeted by the familiar smile of the librarian. She was gratified that her time chauffeuring her students was resulting in a trip to the White House, and excited for Tiesha. Together with the 826 staff, we talked through with Tiesha what she wanted to say, how much time she had, what to wear.
A school administrator stopped by and suggested firmly that for her moment in the spotlight Tiesha wear a shirt with the school name on it.
“I think I’ll wear a black suit,” Tiesha said quietly, but with discussion-ending certainty.
I saw John sitting at a table on the other side of the library, playing chess with another kid, and took my son over to say hi.
“This is John, he’s been part of those poetry classes I go to,” I said, by way of introduction.
“His name’s not John,” the other boy said, like I was an idiot.
I flushed red, as though this bit of ignorance, and not my too-wide smile, signaled I was out of place.
Later, when he was alone, I asked John what his real name was. He told me.
“Why did you say it was John? I mean, all these months I’ve been calling you that.” I got a shrug.
On our way back to the car, my son marveled at all the big kids in the hall, the bustle, the friendly librarian. “This is a really nice school,” he said.
“You think so, buddy?”
“Yeah, I really like it,” he confirmed. “But why are there bars on all the windows?”
I thought of Ben, and of not-John, and wondered how old they were when they first found comfort in a chasm.
Olivia Morgan is the President of OM Strategies and a managing editor of The Shriver Report. Ms. Morgan served as the Director of Federal Relations for California Governor Gray Davis, and as a spokesperson for elected leaders at national and state levels. Ms. Morgan has the honor of serving on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. She also serves on the Board of The New England Center for Children, the Board of the Children’s Health Forum, and the Board of the Captain Joseph House Foundation. Ms. Morgan lives in Washington, DC with her husband David and their two young children.