On a recent trip to a hospital emergency room, my husband Austin Straus met a very ill 14-year-old and her 41-year-old mother. They struck up a conversation and the middle-school student complained that she was having trouble with a homework assignment to write five poems. Rather than illuminate the process for the confused pupils, many having never seen a poem, the teacher told them to “take a look at Shakespeare.” Neither the student nor her mother, living in impoverished circumstances, knew The Bard’s work. My husband recommended they try and find the poetry of Langston Hughes. They hadn’t heard of him either. Instantly, the incident triggered in me a wave of nauseating hurt and rage. I’ve never taken the time to exorcise my school-days demons.  They flare up and torture my psyche every time I step onto a campus, as I fight off recollected frowns, tut-tuts and epithets—the mockeries of “superior” teachers who disdained their Black and Latin charges—who taught many of us to hate school if not the process of education. Lucky me—in those early years of the civil rights movement— I encountered a half-dozen sensitive teachers who inspired my love of poetry instead of squelching it. I am forever grateful for that nameless White female, who, in her clunky shoes and calf-length tweed skirts, passed out poems on mimeograph paper to her first-grade students. When talking to students myself, I often tell the story of the very prim and ebony Mrs. Covington who challenged her junior high school English class to memorize “Invictus” before telling us who had authored the poem.

Originally Published: April 19th, 2010

Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not...