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Writing on city buses just became high art: Poems by District public-school students are in view on Metrobus posters all over the city. Now, instead of reading about the 5th & O Crew, riders can peruse poems like one written by former Backus Junior High Schooler Damia Mayfield:
I am a black person
In a white world
With brown eyes
And a blue heart…
The idea of bringing children’s poetry to thousands of bus riders is the brainchild of poet and arts educator Laurie Stroblas, who seems to have made increasing the literacy of District schoolchildren her life’s mission.
“It had been in my mind for a number of years,” explains Stroblas, director and founder of the “District Lines” poetry on the Metro project. “I’d seen the poetry of adults, well-known national poets, [on bus posters] and thought it would be a natural to have poetry by young people in the school system.”
Exhibiting her characteristic chutzpah, Stroblas marched into the Metro office and presented her idea to Director of Marketing Services Randy Howes. Even after Howes bit, Stroblas recalls, she kept trying to convince him of the project’s merit.
“Then I realized he was already talking about the next step,” she recalls.
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Howes says the idea appealed to him immediately. “You hear so many awful things about D.C. public schools; I just thought this was an opportunity to show something positive,” he says.
Getting started wasn’t easy. Howes had first to insure that the project fell within Metro’s guidelines for public-service advertising, which stipulate that space be given only to nonprofit organizations. Since Stroblas didn’t meet that criterion, it took a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to finally set the project in motion. Since the posters have appeared, Howes reports that he has received praise from Metro administrators and riders alike.
Stroblas is a veteran patron of children’s art: She was the first educator in the area to produce a regular publication—District Lines, from which the bus project got its name—of poems and stories by children. For years she served as the coordinating judge for Parkmont’s school poetry contest and taught creative writing at Stuart- Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill. With a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, she has conducted two workshop series over the past two years, finding the poetry that appears on her posters amid the participants’ work.
“I sent notices to local papers, sent announcements to schools, but I don’t think teachers actually announced it the way I would have liked,” says Stroblas. Nevertheless, she received a response that included a mix of older and younger students of varying ethnic backgrounds. “There was a real range of skills, writing ability, and interests.”
Rebeccah Watson was in the fourth grade at Key Elementary School when she participated in Stroblas’ workshop; now she is a seventh-grader who still possesses a love of writing: “I want to work on a magazine, be a writer, editor, photographer. I already have an idea for my own magazine,” she says. “Poetry gives you another perspective on life, on nature, on people. The Mount Pleasant Library writing workshop was so good because it was free, and offered whatever you wanted to make out of it.”
Watson wrote the poem “To Someone,” which appears in both Spanish and English:
What is your name?
I feel I know you
Maybe you’re me
You seem close to me
Cual es su nombre?
Creo que le conozco
Quiza usted es yo
Parece estar muy cerca de mi
Stroblas says she hopes to get even more young people writing poetry. She’s already planning a contest that will determine the poems that appear in the next edition of the poetry on the bus project. Yet Stroblas claims her motives are selfish: “I do what I enjoy,” she says. “Also, I think it’s real important because the school system is always getting a bad rap. There are some good things going on that should get noticed and played up.”
—Jonetta Rose Barras Persons interested in the “District Lines” poetry project can write to Laurie Stroblas, P.O. Box 32105, Washington, DC 20007.