I feel like it is absolutely the most clichéd thing in the world for an educator to say that her students inspire her. It reeks of the Disneyfied tales of teachers who taught their students about math and literature while the students taught them about Life. But the students that I work with are bright, funny, candid and, honestly, incredibly inspiring. So, cue the dramatic music, the misty eyes, and the impassioned vocal inflection because things are about to get earnest.
A few weeks ago I was at a book club meeting in a New Heights Teen Parent Center. New Heights is an amazing program that works with pregnant and parenting high school students to ensure that students have the support and resources needed to succeed in school. Our book clubs meet at lunchtime in two D.C. Public High Schools (we are expanding to three new schools next semester), where we discuss local, contemporary writers in order to foster a love of literature that students will pass along to their children.
We had just read a poem called “I Too Am America,” modeled after the famous Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too, Sing America.” And the poems launched the students into a discussion about what it means to be an American today.
Many of the students’ comments echoed the cries of nationwide Occupy protesters. “America is made up of so many different people, but it is controlled by so few,” one student pointed out, perfectly summarizing the primary concern of the 99%. Another student talked about how hard it is to find a job in her neighborhood and in her words I could hear a nuanced critique of late capitalism and its detrimental effects on her community.
We then did a six-line poetry exercise where students completed the phrases, “I am,” “I wonder,” “I hear,” “I see,” “I want,” and “I am.” For the record, I am a horrendous poet and my poem was appropriately terrible, but the students wrote amazing and, yes, inspiring poems. Somehow they seamlessly transitioned from talking about what it is like to be disenfranchised, marginalized, and devalued by society to writing poetry about being “black and beautiful,” and the “best version of myself.”
That transition is what stuck with me the most after the meeting. So often I see people, myself included, define themselves by their circumstances. We allow ourselves to become numbers or percentage points because we can feel people in power pushing us into those roles. The “I Am” poems reminded me that I don’t have to resign myself to a label that someone else places on me. I can and should be more like those students who tell the world every day that they are beautiful and strong and powerful.