“Anybody know what clichés are?” I ask the class, searching the sea of faces for a hint of recognition.
“Yeah,” responds a lanky, dark-skinned girl. “Ain’t that like when you say something but a lot of people done already said it, like ‘cry like a baby’ or ‘dumb as a doorknob.’”
“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” I say. But I’m still not sure the class is feeling what I’m trying to say, so I build a little more into it.
“A cliché is a phrase or a saying that has been so used that it’s part of everyday speech. When we write poetry we try to stay away from clichés, ’cause the poet is supposed to be coming up with new and creative ways of saying stuff,” I explain. “Ain’t nothing new, and ain’t nothing creative about a cliché. They always make for wack poetry. Chante gave some good examples; anybody know some other ones?”
“How ’bout ‘big as a house’?” says one kid. “Yeah, that’s it, “ I respond, pleased that the class is grasping it.
“How ’bout ‘Cardozo is hell’?” says another kid.
“Nah, that’s a good line. Not only is it creative, but it could be true,” I smirk. “Lemme hear some more.”
But before anyone can respond, the PA system breaks in hard, sparking a collective moan of annoyance.
“Attention all students, teachers, and staff,” says the voice on the other side. “Please evacuate the building.”
One of the clichés I had come to learn in these workshops was that a lot of times when you get something going at Cardozo, reality intrudes.
“We outta here,” yells one kid. The class, clearly sharing the kid’s sentiment, grabs the books and jets for the door. On the way out, my co-worker Renegade and I ask a few teachers what the deal is. It turns out to be a bomb threat.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised. By that point, I should have been used to the chaos that masquerades as education in the District.
My job at Cardozo was to try and teach poetry in between all the madness. I ended up at Cardozo because I was part of WritersCorps, a program created in conjunction with Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps. The program puts writers in traditionally “underserved” areas and has them facilitate creative-writing workshops. “Underserved” is a politically correct euphemism for places like prisons, homeless shelters, and all D.C. public schools. (The punks up on the Hill have taken aim at AmeriCorps’ budget; Cardozo, and the whole District, are only mirror images of the backwardness of the larger culture, but that’s another story.)
For the time being at least, members of WritersCorps are compensated with a modest bimonthly stipend and an educational grant. It’s a phat deal for a college kid like me, whose parents do all right but aren’t exactly threatening Donald Trump. But the gig requires a special, almost slightly demented, personality. Most writers are slightly off from the get-go, and they aren’t generally known for their social skills. But when you get a writer who actually wants to be placed in an educational environment that could be more insane than he or she is, well, that’s some old clinical therapy shit.
I chose Cardozo as the place I wanted to work because I was only 19 and felt I could relate better to kids. Plus the educational facilities back home in Baltimore weren’t much better then the District’s—I knew from experience that every little bit could help. When I was in high school, I had the advantage of having a mother who was a teacher and a father who stressed reading. That wasn’t the case with most of the kids I went to school with, and they got screwed mightily because of it. I knew that I was no different then most of those kids.
My co-worker Renegade set the workshop up with the school for one Wednesday a week. I had to pre-register for the Spring semester at Howard—Renegade did the first couple of workshops alone. As we walked toward the school for my first workshop, Renegade told me that things hadn’t gone so great to begin with. For the first workshop he had tried to show a video, “Voices Against Violence,” which featured local poets and rappers speaking out against violence. “Soon as I cut the lights off,” he recalled, “this girl gets up, walks across the room, screams ‘Bitch!,’ and slaps the shit out of this other girl.” The workshop ended on that note.
The next one didn’t go much better, he explained. The kids were out of control from jump street, he explained, and the teachers weren’t doing much about it. I was surprised to hear that Renegade was struggling; he was known throughout D.C. as a brother who really didn’t give a damn. It wasn’t that Renegade was mean or anything, it was just that he liked to do what he wanted when he wanted. He had given up a career as a hiphop DJ to go homeless for two years so he could have time to read.
For the past couple of years he had spent time teaching poetry in the last place people think poetry comes from, the inner-city basements of black America. So when he told me the kids were giving him a hard way to go, I knew we were in trouble.
As he talked, I started remembering what it was like when I was in school. Me and my boys, like most students, loved terrorizing teachers. The very purpose for our being students, we reasoned, was to convince these suckers that they had chosen the wrong profession. Actually, I remember thinking that we did the school a service by weeding out weak teachers.
But we saved our most devious plays for substitutes and what they called “extracurricular specialists.” Extracurricular specialists were people who taught things like sculpting, painting, sketching…and creative writing. As Renegade and I walked into Cardozo, I became distinctly aware of the joke the gods had played on me.
We were assigned to a special part of Cardozo called Professional Development School (PDS). But there was nothing professional about the joint at all. The “school” was a large, open-space classroom packed wall-to-wall with ninth and 10th graders. The kids were divided into different groups allegedly learning math, science, or English. I say allegedly because I couldn’t imagine anybody learning much of anything in that environment.
I stood wide-eyed at the door. Students tossed paper across the room, yelled over to other groups whenever they felt like it, and generally acted the fool, all while the teacher was teaching. Some of the kids got up and roamed from group to group like scholastic nomads, while bolder ones just straight walked out of class. A couple of the teachers had control of their students, but the chaos in the rest of the room was a tall source of distraction. I had been in some ill-ass classes when I was coming up, but this was some whole other shit. PDS wasn’t a classroom, it was a circus without a ringmaster.
A few minutes after we came in, a short, rotund white woman with eyes that bubbled good intentions introduced herself as Mrs. Cook. She had gathered the students who had decided to be in our group into a circle. I could see in their eyes that some of the kids were smelling a free period. I can’t be sure, but I thought I saw some of them lick their lips.
Renegade, unfazed as usual, pushed ahead. He passed out copies of a poem he’d photocopied, titled “Call and Response.” The poem featured a riveting conversation between a mother, whose son has just been gunned down, and her son’s death certificate. Renegade asked for volunteers to read the poem, and a kid in a stocking cap, blue jeans, and a tight-ass pair of Airs raised his hand.
The kid read the poem in a raggedy fashion, tripping through it in an involuntarily staccato style, stopping at some words and mispronouncing others. The other kids didn’t hesitate to correct him. Despite his unmoving rendition and the background noise that came from everywhere in the room, we managed to get through the poem. The kids seemed drawn in by the way the poem dealt with black-on-black crime (a subject that would later become painfully relevant to our workshop).
Suddenly, we had a teachable moment on our hands; a small debate started about who the two voices in the poem’s duet were.
“The woman is his girl,” said a thick, dark-skinned sister with braids. “You can tell by how she talking to him.”
“You lunchin’,” responded another student. “It’s his momma talkin’. ’Cause look, she say, ‘Oh Lord, please! Somebody help my baby!’ Only somebody’s mom talk like that.”
I found myself in the midst of my first lesson at Cardozo: These kids aren’t stupid; in fact they’re pretty sharp when they feel like it.
But the operative phrase here is “when they feel like it,” and today wasn’t the day. Renegade gave the kids a writing exercise that had them doing this call-and-response poem using two different voices. Since Renegade was no longer directly in front of them, talking, the kids saw a window of freedom, and immediately took it. Renegade tried keeping order, but the kids weren’t even trying to write. The group fell into its own little conversations, none of which had anything to do with poetry. One of our expectations was that the teachers would be the disciplinarians, freeing us up to teach, but we were on our own.
Mrs. Cook didn’t have any hard-ass in her. She reminded me of those teachers we used to take for bad in school. Not because they were mean to us or anything, but because we didn’t respect them. The teachers never understood this. They didn’t want to be jail wardens, so they preferred to think that as long as they didn’t hassle us we wouldn’t hassle them. They paid for that all year long, and established reputations for being soft. The kids took Mrs. Cook’s peaceful demeanor as an invitation: They yapped on and on, refusing to write, and she attempted to reason with them.
I can’t even front; by the time we left Cardozo that day I was damn near in shock. I never expected shit to be that bad. Renegade called it a “worst-case scenario.” Then he told me I had to do the next workshop. He was illing—wasn’t no way I was going to lead no workshop that soon. Hell, the program had just started. How in the hell was I, the rookie, going to lead a poetry workshop here? Renegade quickly reminded me that leading poetry workshops was right in the middle of the job description I had signed up for.
That whole week I was totally shaken up. I’d come into WritersCorps with some baggage of my own; I was a little insecure and I didn’t live to stand in front of a group of people. I’d overcome my fears to do poetry readings, but this was another world away.
One night during the week, while I was lying on my futon worrying about the class, I remembered something Kenny Carol, our boss, had told me. “It’s all right to want to help the oppressed,” he said, “but when the oppressed say, ‘Yo, fuck you, I ain’t writing no poems,’ what do you do then?” he asked.
I had to find something to get the kids to write; their problem was my problem. I ran through all my books of poetry, sweating buckets the whole way, scrambling to find anything I could hook these kids with.
Salvation, or at least what I thought was salvation, came to me the Monday right before our workshop.
I was in my room studying for a Modern Europe exam, and as usual, I had the radio pumpin’ loud enough to register on the Richter scale in Cali—just to help my concentration. Mobb Deep was playing and just as I got to Henry VIII, the cut “Drink Away the Pain” came on. I always liked the tight horn riff it had, but this time I actually listened to the cut and noticed that Mobb Deep was using extended metaphor. A light went on immediately. I would use a verse from “Drink Away the Pain” to demonstrate extended metaphor to the kids. Then I’d add my own poem “Five Foot Willie the Dunk City Doctor” just to make sure.
I got up Wednesday juiced up, confidence everywhere. I knew I’d come up with a master plan to tackle Renegade’s “worst-case scenario.” I made copies of the two poems, grabbed a cup of coffee (I hate coffee), and arrived at the workshop 10 minutes early. I was amped.
Mrs. Cook assembled about 20 kids in a corner of the room. My group was full of the same craziness as it had been the week before, but I wasn’t worried. Not yet. I passed out the poems and asked for volunteers to read. The first piece was the Mobb Deep verse. One of the girls began reading it, and I immediately knew I had miscalculated big-time. I had assumed that most of the kids were familiar with the song, which was stupid since it wasn’t being played on the radio. Since none of them knew the song, they couldn’t read the lyrics right.
The girl butchered it start to finish—saying words wrong, ignoring the punctuation, and invoking about as much rhythm as an Ivy League step show. The kids hollered out, “Read it right, Jo!,” and constantly corrected her, which made her do worse. Many of the kids started wandering off again into their own conversations. I could see the mayhem coming; it was like watching a hellacious storm form right in front of my face, with me knowing that there was no shelter for miles.
I hung in, though. When Jo finished, I ended up having to reread the lyrics so the kids could get the rhythmic effect. Maybe teaching hadn’t been my thing, but I had rocked whole auditoriums before, reading my own and other people’s poetry. But this was some whole other shit. These kids didn’t come to school to hear poetry, and in PDS it seemed like they didn’t even come to be students. When I finished the piece they seemed slightly amused.
The next poem was my basketball piece, and I read it loud enough to keep the class quiet. I could tell they actually liked it, but again the workshop broke down when time came to write. The students were distracted by kids in other groups, not to mention each other. The whole room roared with chatter, and I started asking myself how anyone could honestly ask kids to study poetry in this environment. Still, by the time we left, three kids had written poems, one more than last week. Progress.
During the next few weeks, I personified the term ‘fresh meat.’ The kids knew the situation was out of hand, clearly didn’t give a damn about poetry, and were quick to remind me of both.
I couldn’t really blame them. The whole environment had been structured to produce mediocrity. The kids understood too well that they were part of a sick joke, and the teachers went with the flow, surrendering to a situation they saw as out of their control. To be fair, Mrs. Cook always seemed interested in the students; it was clear she meant well and was trying to expose the kids to some things they didn’t see everyday. But to have so many teachers trying to teach so many different topics in the same room is insane.
My morale dropped like a prostitute’s panties. I began to dread the Cardozo workshop. When I walked up to the school, I felt like I had cement in my shoes. Worse still, I began not to care about the kids.
At our last workshop before Christmas break, Renegade was leading the class. We had this light-skinned, heavy-set sister named Camille in our group. Camille was one of the few kids in the class who at that time actually wrote poetry when we asked for it. Another young sister named Nicole, who usually was in the workshop, was at the other end of the room. I can’t even remember what Renegade was teaching, all I know is all of a sudden Nicole started charging over toward our group, cussing Camille out like nobody’s business. All kinds of “bitches” and “motherfuckers” flew from her mouth.
Camille was about twice Nicole’s size but was clearly intimidated. She responded with an equally profanity-laced defense, but her quaking voice betrayed her fear. The teachers in the class politely asked Nicole to sit down, but she wasn’t even thinking about listening. The kids, being kids, immediately began instigating and telling Camille how she needed to “whip that ass.” Finally Mrs. Cook checked Nicole and sent her to the office. But by that time the whole joint had gone crazy.
Christmas break came a week later, and I can’t even front like I missed my class during the two weeks we were off. I needed the break to re-evaluate what this “commitment to the oppressed” had gotten me into. My confidence had run off like a deadbeat dad. I even started thinking of crazy-ass ways to get out of the workshop without looking like a quitter. It wasn’t even that the kids were so bad; I expected them to act like kids. But it was the room we were all penned up in—it was half jail, half zoo.
It made me angry in a way I can’t even describe. I knew that the situation at Cardozo would never be allowed at one of those white schools out in the suburbs. Shit, they probably didn’t even allow this mess in P.G. County schools. Everyday these kids were being “cheated, hoodwinked, bamboozled” as Malcolm used to say. And they probably won’t even realize it until damn near 10 years from now, when they’ve joined the always swelling ranks of niggas on the corner talking about what they could of, would of, or should of done.
But WritersCorps wasn’t supposed to be about landing in the middle of a pretty picture. We knew going in that we were on the scene because what was going on was not working. That’s what they mean by “underserved.” If I was going to back out that easily, then I had no commitment to the oppressed, and I really had no commitment to myself (since ultimately I was one of them). I decided during winter break that if I was going back in, things were going to have to change.
The major issue was space. Renegade and I and our kids needed a separate room. Poetry workshops require that people concentrate, read, re-read, then write. This is hard as hell for most adults, even in a quiet room, but to ask for that level of focus from ninth and 10th graders in a room with 40 or 50 other kids is lunacy. I began to understand why so many of the teachers at PDS seemed to have tipped over. I only dealt with this for an hour once a week. They had to teach in that madness from 9 to 3 every day.
When we returned to Cardozo in January, we came back with a more assertive attitude. We were down for the kids, but we had to have a few tools to get some learning done. Mr. Bruno, one of the other teachers, managed to secure a vacant room down the hall. I had to lead the first workshop of the year, and I had decided that I wasn’t taking any shit off of any kids. We ended up with only about 10 kids that day, but numbers didn’t really matter. They came in yippin’ and yappin’ as usual, rowdy as a Pentecostal service. But Ta-Nehisi wasn’t having none of it. I was ready for war.
Mr. Bruno, one of the few teachers who would check the class, picked up the vibe and took it one step further. “Look, either you do poetry or you get out!” And for the first time in all of our workshops, the class shut up. We did a workshop on family poems that day. Everyone read, everyone responded to questions. And when students answered questions, no one else talked.
Bruno patrolled the class like a warden, his eyes daring anybody to start some shit. It was sad that he had to take it there, but we had never had a more productive class than the one that day. We didn’t even do a writing exercise, but it really didn’t matter. This was some major victory for me and Renegade. It was our first real workshop since we’d been at Cardozo.
The next few weeks made us feel like we had landed on a different planet. It was difficult to remember these were the same kids who had been perpetrating all the chaos. Renegade and I saw our opportunity and pushed it.
One of things we tried to do was demystify poetry for the kids. Most people think poetry is some gray-haired white dude with an English accent reading to an audience of stuffy high-society people. Both Renegade and I did our best to totally flip that concept. First, both of us were poets, and it was real clear that we were neither white, English, nor high society. Consequently, we took the image of a poet and exploded it. A poet could be anybody—even a kid at Cardozo who got Ds in English for as long as she could remember.
In order to break down the idea of poetry itself, we brought in work that was accessible and relevant to a kid right here, right now. There were no pieces about daisies, birds in the sky, or palm trees. We brought go-go poems, basketball poems, and poems about black family life. As long as the kids showed interest, we were ready to make every reasonable effort.
Once we got the kids to realize they could write about anything they wanted, we helped them discover the skill to write things in a way that mattered, to choose words and stories that they or their friends would remember. Renegade and I decided to do some language exercises to get them headed in the right direction. The engine of poetry is imagination, and you do much better if you totally disregard logic. One day when Renegade was leading the workshop, he did an exercise designed to get the kids in a better place for producing good work.
“I’m gonna give you 10 words, and you tell me the opposite of those words.”
“Man, that’s too easy, you gotta come harder than that,” one of the kids said.
Renegade sly-smiled him and said, “The first word is ‘phone.’”
The kids looked up, totally lost. “What you mean ‘phone,’ ain’t no opposite to ‘phone,’” said one of the kids.
“That’s the point,” Renegade said. “You gotta think of an opposite. The next word is ‘shoe,’” he said. All kinds of faces squinted up, not exactly sure what Renegade was talking about. But pretty soon they got with it. According to the class, the opposite of phone is whisper, telegraph, ocean, or whale.
The next week I continued down a similar road.
“I’m going to give ya’ll five words, and I want you to define them for me,” I said.
“What’s this, some vocabulary?” one of the kids asked.
“Yeah, sorta,” I responded. “The first word is ‘dodecagon.’”
“Man, what in the hell is a dodecagon?” one kid said.
“I want you to tell me. You ain’t got to know what it really is, tell me what it sounds like it is, or what it feels like when you say it.”
Turns out dodecagon is “an extinct nephew of the Pentagon.” Of course, none of it made any sense, but that was the point. We had to get these kids to think outside of the box that this fucked-up educational system had trapped them in. We had to deprogram them, make them realize that poetry was their own world, where they could build anything. And so they built. They wrote love poems, political poems, clothing poems, season poems, and anything else we assigned.
Once we established some order in the class, we loosened up a little. The kids would write, exchange poems with each other, talk and joke about what they wrote. The kids who weren’t with the program were out, and Renegade and I were able to return to our job of teaching.
I’d have a hard time describing just what a profound effect the kids’ work had on my attitude. I had came to WritersCorps because I never wanted to be locked in an ivory tower as a poet or a writer. I was alienated from enough stuff without being alienated from my own community. I wanted to write for and about folks, stuff that was live in a way that mattered.
I came to WritersCorps because even if I was only a raindrop to a desert straggler’s mouth, I would still not be part of the sun that was killing him. I got my ass kicked from the get-go, and I forgot why I was there—like the kids, I got lost in the chaos. Cardozo became my job, not my commitment.
But as things started changing, I slowly began remembering why I had shown up in the first place. As the poems got better each week, as students began asking to take copies of poems home so they could read them again and again, the class became something I actually looked forward to. The kids were no longer a faceless gang of roughnecks and hood-rats, defined only by their ability to cause trouble. They began to take on identities as students and thinkers.
I became attached to a couple of the kids. Nicole, who had instigated the fight just before Christmas break, became one of our best writers. I found myself looking forward to each time she would come up with slamming poetry.
Haneef, one of the few brothers in the workshop, had a wild imagination. He wrote some of our best poems, including one phat-ass piece explaining why Cardozo was a jail. It taught me things I didn’t know about a place I had spent many months in.
I was proud of their work and proud of the fact that I had played a role in bringing it forth. Oddly enough, that was exactly the fantasy I had brought to WritersCorps. Maybe I wasn’t moving planets, but I was trying and the kids appreciated it.
By April we had a core group of about 10 tight writers. A whole rack of kids had dropped out since we had started, and Renegade and I had basically lost contact with them. One of them was Maurice Caldwell, a short, lemon-complected kid who never really said too much. I remembered him because he was one of the two kids who wrote poems during my second week in the workshop. But almost every other time except that one Maurice slept through the class. When we returned from Christmas break in January, he stopped attending the workshop and only rarely attended school.
One day I was walking down the steps to the workshop, trying to figure out a warmup exercise for the kids. When I got to the bottom, Renegade was talking to Mr. Bruno outside the classroom. I couldn’t hear what Bruno was saying, but I could tell by the look on Renegade’s face that he didn’t like what he was hearing. When I got close enough to hear, I didn’t like it either. Maurice had been shot dead the night before.
When I entered the classroom the kids were sitting in the back with some social workers. They tried to act normal, to keep their feelings on the down-low by laughing and making jokes about whatever. But you could tell they were bothered; they were laughing a little too hard, joking too much.
The teachers were clearly disturbed. Mrs. Cook talked to me and Renegade about Maurice in low, gray tones. “Someone called him over to a car,” she said while pointing to a picture of him on the wall. “When he came over they shot him and then drove off.” She shook her head and walked away.
I can’t even pretend Maurice’s death had a huge impact on the workshop, but his death made it clear to me that what I was doing had limitations. This wasn’t no Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds-type shit. Screw what the hippie liberals will tell you about art and intervention. Poetry alone wasn’t going to save nobody.
At least not directly. But on good days, the workshops kicked the doors down and exposed possibilities. The circumstances most of these kids found themselves in kept possibilities hidden. The vast majority of the kids I worked with at Cardozo, and at my other workshops, had never thought of poetry as a possibility. They never saw themselves in that kind of picture. Nobody had exposed them to what makes a good poem, or the fact that there is poetry in every life.
As school drew to a close, the number of students in our workshop started slipping. Some days we would come in and just kick it with the students about life, sports, or music. We might write a couple of pieces, do an exercise, and then just rap about whatever. The class grew kind of lax, but it was cool because it was summer and we only had a few more sessions. Mr. Bruno told us that Cardozo was shutting down PDS after this year, so obviously Renegade and I weren’t coming back. On the last day we had a small party with the kids who were still left in the program.
Renegade brought in chips, cookies, and fruit punch. Mrs. Cook and Mr. Bruno did the rumba while the kids and I laughed. We had the kids read a couple of their poems, and I read one of Nicole’s love poems, causing the class to bust out laughing.
At the end of the party we didn’t have any emotional goodbyes or tear-jerking farewells. But that didn’t mean we weren’t feeling anything. I knew I wasn’t going to see these kids again. And as I thought back on the three-month hell that I had gone through at the beginning of the program, it seemed minor compared to what some of these kids were facing at home, and what they were facing in the streets. But they still managed to squeeze laughter and smiles out of every single day. This was where the poetry was. You always find poetry in the last place you’d think to look. CP