“Kathryn, man, why you always writin' poems? Why don't you play basketball or somethin'?”
That was William. From a 12-week workshop I taught for Poets-in-the-Schools some six years ago.
William would pin on me a hard sideways stare each Wednesday. “You comin' next week?” his second question so powered by suspicion you just knew this child had been raised on a pile of broken promises deep enough to slice you open from the inside.
I have just recently put myself in the position to answer those kinds of questions again. I'm back at it. NOT basketball, of course, but poetry workshops. And I get to meet class after class of Williams.
When I arrive at the first school the first day I recognize it immediately, though I've never been here before. I pull in and park next to the parole officer's car. The school is a dilapidated mess of concrete. The few kids I find wandering around have their pants sagging so low you'd wonder why they bothered to put them on. A sign titled “Rules” hangs in the room where I'll teach. “1 – Be nice. 2 – Be safe. 3 – Don't give up.”
I meet my classes. The kids bubble and joke, they love poetry, they hate it, they can't make up their minds. By third period word's gotten around – a visitor among them. A tall, lanky senior with space for a small barge between his front teeth slides into the classroom and confronts his teacher. “Tell me it's true!” he demands. “We writin' poems in here today??”
There is the one kid, whose sullen doesn't match the rest of his sulky brethren hiding in hoodies. You can't quite put your finger on it, so you speak to him softly while the others write or don't, offer suggestions he doesn't take, touch his arm as he leaves and tell him you'll see him next week. He looks at you almost as if he wishes it were true. You'll find out later he's the one whose cousin was murdered by gangs over the weekend. There is always that one.
Isaac asks me when I'm going to be a “real teacher” and get a “real job.” How can I explain to him – this is as real as it gets. How did I get so lucky?