"If you want to get girlfriends, you have to be able to write poetry," I told my CXC English language class at the Youth Training Centre (YTC). "No, Miss," Kendell laughed. "No, what?" I asked. "Girls don't want boys who write poems," said Sherwin and Ashton. "Girls want guys who have money and things to give them," they said. "Girls want clothes and cell phones. Nice things. Lots of things." I knew they would say this because almost all of my students had written about the pressures they had felt to come up with lavish gifts for girls when they were outside of the institution.
The more I talked about writing poetry, the more many of my students laughed nervously. Kevon, always willing to try anything, listened attentively and beamed one of those "I'll support you, Miss" smiles. Of course he couldn't admit to that. Olton, always optimistic, was game for the challenge. Marc loves to write so he was more than willing to tackle poetry. I was always reluctant to push my students to emotional extremes, but I was adamant about giving poetry a try. "Clearly, you are not meeting the right type of girls," I said. "The girls I know would love to have poems written for them. That's the type of girl you have to look for when you get out of here." That was sobering thought.
Writing poetry is not my forte, so I asked Mervyn Taylor to teach that lesson. Mervyn is a retired English teacher who taught in challenging New York schools. He has published several books of poetry, and he's one of my favourite poets. The "lads" were subdued and guarded when Mervyn came to class. Jamai had sent a message he was sick, and he wasn't coming to class. I sent a message back that I would come inside their "dorms" and get him. Reluctantly, Jahmai came, but he would not look at me for the entire class. Sherwin turned away from Mervyn for the entire class. I decided not to push him. Kheelon kept chewing on the inside of his mouth and glancing at me. Kheelon had secretly confessed that he wanted to write poetry because he had been reading a book of Tupac Shakur's lyrics. They all warmed up to poetry when Mervyn told them to write an erotic poem "but it can't be vulgar or explicit," he said. "You have to capture love without being graphic." Then, they had to write poems about home. Here are three of the poems I collected on that day:
I met her once
I met her once
By a store watching a pair of shoes,
"Good afternoon" I greeted,
"Hi" she replied,
My heart raced
She answered, she did.
"Are you buying those?
"Nah I just eyeing them;
"They're nice, huh?"
"Yeah. They would look good with
We hit if off,
Now I'm here
3 months, 7 days after.
She's looking at me writing
"That your diary?" she asked.
"Yeah" I replied
"Write down it was fantastic."
It was fantastic!
I met her once,
I loved her ever since.
The bright paint on the walls,
Overpowers your sense of time
Inside the walls, Christmas never ends
The pictures on the walls are no strangers,
There is a new one that represents
someone vulnerable to danger
The spirits of the people are like cats,
pleasant, but innocently mischievous.
The queen in this place is the one who does all the
hard work; she washes and cooks and sees
about us all, she is worshipped and adored,
Picturing a place like this without rest,
gives the impression that here will be tiring
But here you can find comfortable rest.
The rooms are warm, and the beds are cozy
In this heaven,
so just like kings and queens, we sleep royally.
In the morning, noon and night, any
hunger can be satisfied. With food of all kinds,
coming from a place smelling like a bakery
and fine restaurants combined.
Welcome to my home.
I live in a place
That has 2 lifestyles
The gangster life where
They rob and kill people
And the good life
Where people care and love each other
A place where you can hear the breeze passing by
And smell an unknown person's meal
from right around the corner
Church choirs sing loud until heaven comes down
Different avenues and different streets
Where careers build and talents soar
You will bounce into those
Whose lives are like a blank, crumpled up paper
Waiting to be discarded
You may have heard the name before
But not what's in it
Only I know because that's where I live
When class ended, they smiled-a different smile from the initial nervous ones. These smiles conveyed relief and the happiness that comes from reaching deep inside and discovering something new-like love or the meaning of home.
Next week: An outing gone awry changes how my students and I feel about each other, and on February 28, the shocking and surprising CXC results.