What we're really writing for...
More than 10 years ago, I did the first of many residencies with 6th graders in a Miami school, a dismal jumble of iron and concrete with the flowery name Lillie C. Evans Elementary. Although I was initially excited about introducing the kids to poetry, my trip to the school was disheartening. While my driver—one of the most committed teachers I have ever met—bemoaned Liberty City’s stunning unemployment rate, we passed street after street of shuttered storefronts, heavily-gated package goods stores, ramshackle churches and an astonishing number of shops selling all manner of bundled synthetic hair for braiding and weaving. The entire neighborhood looked like an armed camp that had already been vanquished by the enemy—rusted padlocks swung from a hundred doors, bedsheets were taped to windows, busted gates banged against brick walls. I couldn’t help but wonder about the children.
I remember this about the children. Although they lived in Miami, only a few of them had ever seen the ocean. None of them had thrown back their heads and ran giggling in the surf. “There’s some big water ‘round here,” one of them told me, her eyes glinting with the shared secret.
I came to Liberty City after I'd met Cheryl, the aforementioned teacher and a stellar poet, at a poetry festival in Asheville, NC. We talked for hours about “her kids,” and how she wished a writer could come in, spend some time, and show them how relentless words could be. But, of course, there was no money. I had never heard a woman speak with such passion about children she hadn’t actually given birth to. So I told her that I’d be her poet, as long as she could get me to Miami and find me someplace to sleep. She worked like a demon to raise the airfare, and a pallet on her floor worked just fine.
That first time, that first day, I wondered if I'd made a mistake. Even the building was unwelcoming, a clutter of dully painted blocks that seemed to have landed willy-nilly after being thrown into the air. Industrial concrete walkways linked the blocks. Kids careened down the narrows, spitting sneaky curse words, or trudged slow, heads down, in no hurry to be anywhere.
My assigned 12-year-olds were sullen, wary of this woman who claimed they could write their world if they wanted. I could actually see them deciding to just wait me out. No need to get excited. I’d be gone soon.
When they found out that I’d actually be there for a whole week--even then, they were convinced I’d change my mind and not show up for a second day—the children were clearly astounded they anyone would voluntarily spend time with them. When it came to expressing themselves, their real voices were buried beneath years of being told that they had no voices. I knew they had screaming and weeping and even singing to do. I could see whole lives behind those eyes. But I also saw a single relentless message: “I can’t.” No matter how much I tried to coax their throats open, I soon realized that I was fighting a losing battle. Their throats were gone.
The week was half over before I saw a dim light flicker, then grow stronger. The kids realized I wasn’t going away. Walking between classes, I was hugged roughly and without without warning. Shouts of “Hi, Miss Patricia!” followed me through Lillie C’s concrete mazes. And in the classroom—after cartoons, television shows, sports, fast food, rap, music videos and X-Box—I finally hit upon the one thing they all wanted to talk about.
It was a topic common to all of them. In the alleyways between project buildings, gunfire was almost considered backdrop. Behind closed doors, frustrated men pounded the breath from their women, young mothers held guns to the heads of abusive boyfriends. Kids were killed for their In Liberty City, violence was the only motion, the only certainty. All too often, death followed.
When my kids (falling in love, I had shepherded them away from Cheryl) started to write, their lines were clipped and halting and strangely adult. They were lines about losing everything. They were lines about sudden solitude. They were lines like “My father left my mama and my mama left me.” When I asked them to balance the purging with memories of softer times, I was told—gently, as if I was a toddler incapable of true understanding—that softer times were just not a reality for them. One young man, asked to remember an occasion when he’d had fun with a family member, replied “Well, we was gon’ go out to play video games once, but I don’t remember if that was before or after my brother got shot.”
They had all lost something, someone. Largely due to rampant drug use, AIDS had blazed through the region like a grease-fed fire, leaving confounded children in its wake. When I stepped into that first classroom, one shy little girl—gloriously hued and crowned by popped plaits—locked her eyes on me with an intensity that heated my skin. Once class was over and I stood around talking to students, she was there, silent, holding my hand or resting her head on my hip.
I’d seen that kind of craving before. She was shopping for a mother.
Her name was Nicole, and her mother had died of AIDS the week before. Already, without fanfare or consolation, she was back in school. No psychologists swarmed the building to deal with the child’s inevitable trauma, or to teach her friends how to speak to her about the loss. Her mother had just died, and now there she was in my classroom, her eyes burning into me, thinking I might just fit the bill.
I let Nicole hold my hand, clutch my clothing, try on my footsteps, share my lunch. But I also showed her ways to fill the void that she was trying to fill with me. What was her name, Nicole, what was her name? We talked about her mother and slowly the adjectives came, and then more adjectives, and then whole memories, sweet and a little startling. No honey, it doesn’t matter if the words are spelled right. Before he week was over, Nicole found her throat, and her mother sprang from it.
This past summer, more than a decade after meeting Nicole, I went to Lillie C for what I’m pretty sure is my last residency. Cheryl is gone now, squeezed out by budget cuts and the continuing struggle to bring the children something other than a parade of days. We both harangued, wrote impassioned letters and bashed heads with the bigwigs the Miami/Dade School system—and after all the drama, there’s only one thing I’m sure of. Without someone to champion the cause, there will be no more poets at Lillie C. Evans Elementary School.
Now, more than a decade later, yesterday in fact, I stood in a polished, sunwashed classroom in Hastings-On-Hudson, New York. Instead of a blackboard, there’s a computerized Smart Board you can write on with your finger. Many of these children, the darlings of ritzy Westchester County, NY, have cars parked outside, intricate orthodonics, laptops and trust funds. It’s jolting to see how assured they are. And why not? When you hear someone say “Children are our future,” these are the children they’re envisoning.
So I told the kids of Hastings High the story of Nicole and Lillie C. I read the poem I read first in practically every reading I’ve done for 10 years, dedicated to “the sixth grade class at Lillie C. Evans Elementary School, Dade County, Miami.” I told them there are a thousand Nicoles, wandering and rootless, and that our words help them find theirs.
I’d seen that craving before. They were listening.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...