Twelve of my students amazed me last week. They didn’t surprise me, I knew they could do it. But I still wasn’t certain the plan would unfold with such beauty.
For the last few years, my student-poets have built a relationship with 4th and 5th graders at Bishop Walker School in Congress Heights, Southeast, Washington, D.C. Last Thursday, we returned for our first visit there since the pandemic began. My 11th and 12th grade students taught and learned. The 4th and 5th grade students taught and learned too. Even this veteran teacher mostly learned.
We arrived at Bishop Walker School around 10am. We huddled in the parking lot to gather ourselves, make our name tags, be sure we had a clear plan. Our guys were ready and excited. Many of these high school seniors and juniors are pretty new to poetry. Some have been part of our poetry club for two years but most are new to poetry this year. Regardless, they had practiced running a poetry workshop, reading their own poems, encouraging younger poets to write. Today, they were ready to put it all into action.
We gathered in the small amphitheater outside the school, a 3-tiered arc of cement that would be our classroom and poetry slam space. Once we were set, the 4th and 5th graders came outside in a single-file line, holding notebooks, pens, and big smiles on their faces. They filled up the amphitheater and our high schoolers stood before them in a line. Our MC, Gavin, welcomed everyone, explained how glad we were to be there and then asked our guys to introduce themselves. My students gave their names, sports they played, how long they’d been writing poems. Then the 4th and 5th graders did the same. Once we were past the introductions, the MC organized everyone into small groups and off they went to write “On My Street” and “A Person I Admire” poems. Some spread out in the amphitheater, others moved down into the playground. For the next hour or so, the magic happened. I watched my high school seniors and juniors invite, encourage, cajole, suggest. They asked the young poets questions, laughed, told stories, shared their own poems. Many moments were spent bent over notebooks, looking into the sky for ideas, then furiously writing and revising. Many moments were spent in laughter and storytelling too.
I walked from group to group observing, sometimes poking my head right into their conversations, but mostly just watching and listening. Once it looked like everyone was close to finishing at least one poem, we began to organize the poetry slam. To my surprise, nearly everyone wanted to read their work aloud to the whole group. We took a break of 15 minutes or so to shoot the basketball and run around, then everyone filled the amphitheater again. The magic had already happened, but now we would get to see and hear it.
One of our seniors, Joseph, served as Co-MC, along with Thaddeus, a 5th grader with a big personality. They were a perfect pair. Joseph is serious and mellow. Thaddeus is playful and funny. They did a great job introducing the poets, alternating between the little guys and the older guys. They invited everyone to “snap it up” for each poet, the asked us all to respect the mic. Which we did.
We heard poems about moms who give everything, streets filled with glass and gunfire, fathers who work hard and laugh hard, athletes the kids admire. We heard poems about the joy of hitting “nothing but net” on the basketball court, reaching out to catch a football, and the deep love for a grandmother, chicken wings, waffles. These young poets gave us just what poetry is supposed to give: all the joys and sorrows of this life in surprising, beautiful, and heartbreaking honesty.
Who taught and who learned? This is an easy question to answer. We all did both. The high school students taught the younger poets how to push toward details and sensory description, while the younger poets taught the high schoolers how to be honest, earnest, and clear. The little ones taught the older ones how to laugh hard in front of their peers, as well as how to reveal a deep love for one’s mom. The high school poets taught by example that being a young Black man can mean knowing one’s feelings, sharing his love for an art form like poetry with others. The young students saw all of this.
After many years of teaching, I have learned that most young people will go as far as you push them. Set a low bar and they will stay there. Invite them to reach higher and they will often get there. I have also learned that poetry continue to amaze me in its power to change people. These young men and these little boys used poems to voice their feelings: sadness, joy, love, affection, disappointment, even rage. But in using their words, they can see, explore, and maybe even transform those feelings. Poetry does this. Every time.
When we returned to our school, we gathered in our school’s chapel for a brief reflection session. I simply asked our students “What did you see?” They said more than I thought they’d say. They saw innocence, sadness, potential. They saw kids struggling with feelings. They also themselves in the younger poets. They went expecting to teach. They returned knowing they’d learned.
Photographs taken by J. Ross