We had a poet come in to meet some students yesterday. This guy is from where they are from. He says a lot of paternal things they need to hear, like, “You are no crazier than my generation when we were young,” and “You took this poetry thing to a whole new level with hip-hop.” He tells them about race riots in Kansas City, about Vine street, about bootlegging.
In front of kids who I know have lost friends and siblings to murder, he tells about similar losses when he was young. He talked about how he went to summer school to get the graham crackers, and I thought about the bin of cheez-its I had up in my room, ready to be passed out to students who stay for tutoring. How I loved serving snack when I worked at a preschool.
Our visitor talked a while, and then the students started volunteering to read their poems to him. Now, perhaps one would have thought our visitor, a published, prize-winning writer, would have read some of his stuff. He didn’t. The kids read, on and on, taking turns, and he coached them about how to project and command the room. It was amazing to watch them be listened to. An accomplished adult just listened and listened, to their writing about love and depression and death– the usual subjects of poetry.
They read from their cell phones, mentioning which ones were already posted on facebook for later perusal by the audience. One student read a piece about a bullied kid, a kid who was Latino and bisexual, which was especially brave. Several times the room was silent, or people gasped, before anyone snapped their fingers in appreciation.
“Who taught you guys to snap?” our visitor asked. I shook my head. They always show up with this snapping thing. “It was the beat poets,” he explained. “They snap and they say, ‘Hey, I dig that, sister.'”
A kid read a poem with a “damn” in it, then a “shit,” then a “fuck.” They looked at me nervously each time, although by now most of them know my rules. English class is a PG movie, but poetry readings are unrated. “You’re still young, so those words still are exciting,” visitor said. “Sometimes you might need a FUCK, but you have to use it carefully, not like every other word.” The kids tittered in delight and horror.
I love that they listen to each other. That they shush each other. I love seeing how comfortable and safe they feel at school.
One of the kids who I feel most tenderly towards didn’t say a word. Kid didn’t even raise a hand when visitor said, “Who here wants to be a professional writer?” Although I know that he does. It is a secret. As long as his eyes are open, he can keep his secret.