I recently gave an assignment in class to write vignettes about transformative life experiences. When I give those assignments where I ask students to truly share parts of themselves that might be uncomfortable, I always make sure to join in so that they know this is a mutual trust experience. What follows is a spoken word poem I performed for my student in this new unit of poetry, written after I received a vignette from a student of mine.
The day things changed (or didn’t, but became worth it.)
You come into my classroom with
your sullen face slouchy mouth angry laugh
this young girl in a hardened shell
strolling through the door ten minutes
after the bell.
Three weeks into the quarter and
I’m lucky if I’ve seen you one two three times
out of ten.
The look you’re giving me as I check Do-Nows
eloquently says: “This sh*t again?”
No, not this sh*t again
disrespectful quintessential teen
so well-versed in food and hair and phones and fight.
Today, you won’t sleep or spit and curse at me
Today, I will make you write.
And so silence descends as you roll your eyes
as the class bends their heads over paper
writing their life stories in the form of vignettes.
“Pick a moment,” I chant, “tell me your loves your lies
your joys, your regrets.”
At this, your ears perk up. Your pencil
moves, writes, cracks under the pressure of
the story you share.
I walk around slowly, counseling softly
and catch a glimpse of “IT’S NOT FAIR.”
You turn in your paper with led-black smudges
the neon orange hallmark of Hot Cheetos
a full two pages of cramped letters.
And a postscript at the end that I see first
which reads, “I think writing this made things better.”
I soak that in for a second
moving the message around in my mouth
before I turn to the front page.
And I read your words, peerless feerless teen
soaked with feeling, choked with rage.
“I had a baby once,” you write, “that I was gonna abort
but my Heart told me to keep it so I did, and
it was gonna be a girl, I could feel it.
Her name was Shirell. But one day I started bleeding and
I didn’t have no doctor to heal it.
I lost my baby girl about three months ago
and sometimes it still hurts
so much that I get mad.
I never told anyone this, not even my mom
not even my sister, or my baby’s dad.”
You end there with the sentence dangling
a confession that means everything
and says even more.
You give me your past
and you tell me of war.
A war with your body and of poverty
of no resources no support and of tragedy
a war I wish I could’ve helped you fight
a war on which you have
shed some light.
Sixteen year old girl, with sneering lips
and cell-phone that rings and rings that glint
I am sorry that you hurt.
I am sorry that I didn’t know to look for
pain that isn’t overt.
The thought strikes me:
of your name and your experience
and the rubric I must make.
I wonder if it’s possible to
standards-align your heartbreak.
The thought strikes me:
How can I quantify your memories
with a 3 out of 6?
What could I possibly
tell you to fix?
This is you laid bare
raw and open like a
tentatively budding flower.
And more than anything I want you
To feel empowered.
So I leave no score at the top
or the bottom or
on the sides
Instead, I write: “Thank you
for not letting yourself hide.”
I write about how a story
can be trapped like a bird
grammar & spelling mistakes akin to jail.
I tell you that your story deserves to be free
Full of purpose and vibrancy and sensory details
I promise, student of the scowls
the multitude of class cuts
if I never thought of you before
now I can think of nothing but.
I will work to ensure that you
(gone from even you to especially you)
because you’ve got guts
and you’ve got brains.
We will make an impact together
more than a prediction
I make a vow.
Humbly I apologize for missing you
“Thank you,” I write to you
and I mean every letter
every syllable of each word
“Listen to me,” you said, and I