the middle school I work at has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. In the two years that I have worked there, I’ve watched too many of my students be taken away in handcuffs and pulled from school by deportation orders. My students are confronted daily by gang violence, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse, missing parents, sexual violence, and untimely death—all perils of a working class neighborhood.
One of my students was kidnapped and taken to Mexico. Another was banned from campus for beating an underclassman unconscious. One of my most charismatic students was arrested for organizing a student fighting ring and taking bets on the winners. Over 83% of all students qualify for the government’s discounted meal program.
This is where I teach poetry.
Once a week, for two hours, I sit in a classroom of young people and ask them to tell me their stories. I show them videos of performance poets. I read them Saul Williams, Nikki Giovanni, Raul Salinas, and Asha Bandele. I show them what poetry can do. I urge them to write.
One particular week I started class with a video of young poets from Chicago, performing a piece about gang violence. My students sat quietly at their desks and watched the video of “Lost Count: A Love Story”:
Will they ever call your death beautiful / Your life a sacrifice / Will the meeting of blood and bullet ever be called romantic / A love story to be jealous of?
Before the lights came back on, everyone was crying. The only thing I knew to do was direct the students to their notebooks. We didn’t discuss the video. We didn’t relate our stories. We wrote.
As the class continued, I slowly discovered the heartbreaking events that had preceded my visit. Earlier that week an 11th grade student—from the feeder high school and whose sister attended the middle school—had been killed by a train while crossing the tracks. A day later a student had died from an asthma attack after being left alone in her home.
One week. Two deaths. And a classroom full of poetry. This is why my students come to class every week. This is why they come to poetry. To heal. To tell their stories for the first time. To grieve. To ease private pain with public catharsis.
This is why I stay.