I just finished teaching a 6-week poetry workshop at Grandview, a local small high school, under the auspices of Arts @ Large. We wrapped up on Friday with a public performance of student work during Gallery Night. We had six Grandview students perform, another two attend in support, with others represented in absentia by their poetry on the wall. I probably worked with nearly 70 students over the course of the workshop, but the Gallery Night production featured the work of the stalwarts, the most enthusiastic.
Talent and enthusiasm aside, the stalwarts were nervous. Several students who had promised to perform didn’t show and their parts had to be divided among those who did. Unfamiliar lines had to be studied and logical inconsistencies smoothed out. Our rehearsal time was cut short by the needs of the gallery — and then of teen stomachs once Debi, the principal, delivered pizza. The gallery staff brought out a microphone. We hadn’t practiced with a microphone. The students were going to hit the stage raw.
“Love your words,” I told them, condensing all my stagefright-calming advice to three syllables. “If you love your words, the audience will love them too.”
The Grandview students’ work was part of a larger exhibit on bullying and creating safe spaces for youth. My time with them was focused on tying lessons they were already doing on the Holocaust and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to an exploration of the ways institutional oppression feeds acts of individual injustice, like bullying. Being the activist, I turned each day’s discussion toward the ways that common people pushed back and how poetry has always been part of that fight.
My students had prepared two group poems on such moments of resistance: one on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during the Holocaust and one on the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in that launched the broader movement for the integration of restaurants. Two students were going to perform their individual poems, a rap on the legacy of Trayvon Martin and a persona poem from the perspective of a young man who is interned in a concentration camp at the moment American soldiers arrive to liberate it.
We were invited to perform the whole set three times during the evening, since Gallery Night provides a roving and ever-changing audience. The first performance went pretty well. We had a fairly attentive audience of early arrivals — staff and parents from other schools, some elementary school kids who were showing their work, too — and the Grandview students did well, settling into their material in a new space.
For the second performance, the audience had changed. A large group of students from another local high school (let’s call it “Other”) had arrived. They were loud and agitated, excited about the impressive video project they had done. I had a bad feeling as my students stepped up to the mic. The Other students continued to be loud, so the Grandview performers calmly waited for them to settle down before they began. But as they moved through the beginning of the set — the two group poems — the Other students got loud again and began making hostile comments about the writing and the students themselves. I stepped up behind the main group of Other students, hoping to find a responsible adult, but didn’t see one.
When the time came for the individual poems, I made eye contact with the “Trayvon” poet to see if he was still game to go. He shook his head very subtly. I understood. I wouldn’t want to stand alone reading a heartfelt poem in front of this crowd either. I admired his ability to protect himself when, as is often the case with bullying, we adults were falling down on the job.
After a quick consult with Debi, we called off the second individual reader’s performance, too. A student with special needs, he was “already enough of a target,” as she said.
I got a staff member to help me find the teacher in charge of the Other students. I told her what happened. She didn’t want the details but rushed off to talk with her kids. By the time of our third and final performance, the Others had either settled down or cleared out.
The Grandview students took the stage with determination and grace, in spite of their trepidation. They pulled off their best performance yet, emotional and focused. My “Trayvon” poet at first said he didn’t want to read his work in this last set, so I had my “Holocaust” poet go, announcing him as the closer for the evening. In the middle of that poem, the “Trayvon” writer said he would read after all. He had assessed the situation and decided it was safe enough for him to risk performing again. I was really proud of his his skillful self-protection and of his bravery. I learned from him this weekend. The situation reminded me of the two lines I find most moving from his poem, “We Are Trayvon”:
I should be able to express how I feel and be able to dress how I want.
I should be able to go where I please and be able to leave when I’m done.
May we make it so for all young people, and soon.