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By day two, I know the drill: plop my backpack on the conveyor belt, hand over cell phone and keys, try not to spill my coffee as I walk through the metal detector and into a light-drenched atrium, where the students of Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology are slouching, texting, yawning, flirting, and waiting for the first bell to ring.
At Payne Tech, in Newark, New Jersey, a showcase public school named for the state’s first Black member of Congress, kids learn auto mechanics and animal sciences, cabinetmaking and culinary arts. They also learn, thanks to a handful of tireless faculty members, theater and dance and music. I’m here, for a dozen days over the fall semester, to add poetry to the mix.
Under my tutelage, 300 seniors will take part in Poetry Out Loud, a national contest in which high schoolers memorize and perform classic and contemporary poems from a diverse catalogue curated by the contest’s founders, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.
I tell each group—teens dressed in regulation khaki pants and navy cardigans or blazers, some in blue-and-goldenrod striped neckties—to write down three goals: have fun. Challenge yourself. Find a poem that changes your life. They tap on their school-issued Chromebooks or scribble on looseleaf.
Then they browse the Poetry Out Loud site and make choices: “Stomp” by Nikki Grimes; “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost; “Broken Promises” by David Kirby; “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. They choose poems with meter tight as a military march or jumpy with staccato line-breaks. Poems that chatter like nursery rhymes, poems that croon like jazz. Poems seething with the stuff that has animated poets since the dawn of language: love, death, war, grief, soul-crushing loneliness.
“Why did you choose this poem?” I ask each of them. “Why did it choose you?”
Again and again, I watch students drop their chin and mumble a version of, “Well, I’ve been going through something…” Over the weeks, I will learn what those “somethings” are: a death in the family; a house fire that swallowed every possession; a deportation order; the kind of break-up that slays your heart when you are 17.
Where you’re from
On day four, they start to trust me. One boy stays after the bell to show me a video, a silent movie he and his cousin co-wrote. One student comes out to me as non-binary. They ask for what they need: “Is there a poem about grandmothers? Because mine passed away… Is there one about letting go when the other person doesn’t love you back?”
Are we having fun yet? I get them on their feet for vocal warm-ups—“Irish wristwatch; sushi chef … Mommy made me mash my M&Ms, oh my!” I ask them to “speed-date,” moving around the room to recite the first two lines of their poem to as many classmates as possible, each time varying the tone, pacing, and body language.
I remember being 18. Wanting to disappear and to stand out. To be extraordinary. To be anonymous.
Then they write their own poems. We talk about the difference between “where you live” and “where you’re from,” how the first is an address and the second is … well, everything: accent, homeland, music, food. Where you live is Newark. Where you’re from is bachata, mango, the stars that salted the sky over your grandmother’s yard in Honduras.
I walk around to read their works-in-progress. “I’m from a place where the tall boy who smelled of chocolate got shot and killed … I’m from a creative father who sent me short stories from his cell.”
One day, the teacher suggests they write about masks. They describe how masks itch and impede their breathing, how weary they are of wearing them.
But there is another side to that story. Some welcome the masks. They don’t want their faces to be legible. They’re glad to have a reason to hide acne-pitted cheeks or crowded teeth, the noses they believe are too shiny, too bumpy, too wide. They write about masking as protection and concealment. A kind of school uniform for the face.
Of course. I remember being 18. Wanting to disappear and to stand out. To be extraordinary. To be anonymous.
In a poem, you can be both/and. The pandemic has roughed us up and made us tender. Masks keep us safe, and they keep us apart. Still, there is something that leaks through all the layers, the polyester covering, and the poker-face beneath. It emerges in the words that are at once wound and balm, laying bare the pain and promising, “You’re not the only one who feels it.”
On our last day, every class writes a “magic poem.” Each student contributes a line on a particular theme, but without seeing what others have written.
A few wince at my prompts: “What if…” “I wonder…” and especially, “I’m afraid of…” But then they write—some in English, some in Spanish, others weaving both languages—carefully pleating the paper over their unsigned words: “I wonder what color love is … I remember when you lied about who you were … I’m afraid que mi madre se muera/I’m afraid my mother might die.”
What do I want these seniors, on the cusp of whatever comes next, to know at the end of a dozen days? That people who write poems are just people. That their own hearts beat iambically, insistently, that poetry lives in their bodies, that writing is a muscle they can learn to flex.
In the final five minutes, I make them stand in a circle one more time. I unfold the magic poems and read them aloud.
What if everything was different?
What if he never died?
What if I was able to say goodbye?
I look at each student in turn, trying to say “thank you” with my eyes.
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