Reading & Literacy

Students Write Their Way to Hope, Courage: Read Their Poems

By Catherine Gewertz — April 25, 2022 2 min read
Conceptual image of poetry.
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There’s no question: The pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning has weighed heavily on students. Much has been written about how they’re struggling. But they’re also finding ways to cope with the pain they’re feeling and make sense of their world.

Poetry is one way young people are grappling with the events around them. Studying and writing poetry “can save lives,” one student told us. Here are five poems that students in Los Angeles and Miami wrote to make sense of these difficult times.


Last year, seven students in Precious Symonette’s poetry class at Miami Norland Senior High School in Miami collaborated on a piece that turns an unsparing eye on the struggles around them, while paying tribute to the life-saving power of self-expression. This poem, by Anthony Miley, Brenis Bostick, Darrelle Young, Jeremiah Johnson, Jonatan Francois, Kayla Williams, and Ni’ja Maxwell, was published recently in a national collection of young people’s writing, Dear Freedom Writer.

‘Poetry is Our Poker Face’

The most precious poetry our mentor ever preached to us was

“Write yourself into existence’’

As time passed

We realized we didn’t heed those words

We were writing ourselves out of existence

We wrote ourselves into existence to learn and to love who we were, every part of ourselves, even the parts that were too broken to piece back together ...


We wrote ourselves out of existence to cope, to breathe, to learn new ways of piecing ourselves back together, to reenergize, rejuvenate, to gain strength to fight the injustices of life


We are escape artists.

Using our words as vacations from cruel realities

of abuse

of violence

of discrimination

of mothers dying, sick and silent

The cards we were dealt were not a good hand

Poetry is our poker face

With our figurative language we never fold


I slang freedom in poems like Ebonics

Who banged and dodged gangs on the same street where my brothers blood shed

Producing gardens with my words was never in the forecast for me.

If the rose in the concrete had gold teeth, would he look like me


It doesn’t matter who you like

It matters more what you’re like


I learned to turn alliteration into armistice

Halting wars with my words

I’ve spent too much time writing to let someone else shoot my narrative down

Call me justice

Because I’m bigger than any hate crime

I hate crime

But that doesn’t mean I need to waste time

Waiting on somebody else to use my rhymes

Finding paradise through paragraphs

I’ve rewritten my existence


What if writing hadn’t become a skill?

If it hadn’t been for the power of poetry,

This story would’ve never been told.

I chose to live and write my own story,

and not have my life memorialized in a eulogy.

Putting pen to paper,

Writing the words I could not say.

Finding my path to freedom, just as the Freedom Riders did back in the day

Discovering the artist within me using words to paint the story of my life.


We

Honor the name Freedom Writers

We

Know that freedom is worth fighting for

We

Hand out hope to others

We

Write ourselves back into existence


Through our lines we have learned

That we are stronger

Than the naysayers

Bolder than any accusation

And braver than any coward

That ever tried to cower us


We control our narratives

We are our own narrators

We dare any hater

To ever feel entitled to

Titling our story


Rewriting the narrative of society

Our struggles and surroundings don’t define us.

This is our life and no one has the authority to put their pen to our paper,

This is our story.

A story of how writing became our armor in battle.

The pen is our sword,

Paper, our shield

Writing gave us the ability to fight freely

Because this is our story,

This is our words,

This is our future.

Excerpted from the book DEAR FREEDOM WRITER: Stories of Hardship and Hope from the Next Generation by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell. Copyright © 2022 by The Freedom Writers Foundation. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.


Sydheera Brown, a senior at Miami Norland Senior High School in Miami, loves reading poetry. She also finds strength in the poems she’s written herself. Here she writes about the pain of racism, and the isolation and fear of the pandemic, and finds her way to an uneasy kind of hope.

My New Normal

I’ll be honest; even before this virus, living was apathetic

Memorable in ways I wish I could forget it

All the lyrics jumbled in my head

And though I was the composer,

I wasn’t getting any closer to the masterpiece ...

I had always envisioned; it’s a cacophonous collision

Losing someone noncommittal, love so brittle—I went insane

Trying to remain civil enough to find patience in madness and

Peace in sadness

The Miami I grew up in is gone


No more random doodles of chalk on the sidewalk

Or children laughing, running, riding by

The familiar rhythm of quick cash and candy crinkling in their pockets

In just a few months, everything has changed; no one even goes outside

We divide and we hide and we stand far behind

‘Cause we can’t cross the six-feet lines


I threw away my emotions like crumpled paper

Knowing I still had them to deal with later

Switched up the tempo, I had to let go of the things I used to know

In the headache and stress, I lost my cool

But strangely, now I miss going to school

The normal ruckus of my boisterous peers, of random cheers

I miss the rumors and gossip that I heard but never cared about

Walking down the halls and up the stairs

The sound and friction of moving chairs, pencils scribbling

Basketballs dribbling, squeals and laughter that were never my own

But now I’m here at home


George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, so many others lost their lives

Black anger and colored grief took to the streets

Marching far, waving signs, forgetting systemic racism

Has always been by design, it’s not benign

This strum of blood-stained strings vibrates away horrendously

Riots, screams, quarantines

My blood runs cold, ‘cause I know what it means

Every day the word “COVID-19” find its way into my feed

Plaguing the media, echoing on TV

But fear is the real pandemic; bred by science and suspicion

On the global scale of flawed conviction

Masks plastered against our faces as hysteria chases the future

Rushing every moment until peace itself is stolen


It took me months to adjust to the empty stress that’s house arrest

Watching hours pass, ticking by like a metronome

Climate change; it fluctuates like dynamics, causing panic

Hoping to weather the storms of a past that’s always haunted us

Blasting full thrust into our hearts as prejudice crawls its way back into society

Though it never left, it’s worse than ever, but many think things are better

Now that Biden fills the spot where Trump once stood

Building walls with baleful calls masked by thunderous applause

Such a noble cause, many think

Drinking from the wine of ignorance

Hearing about jabs of man-made pestilence

Claiming safety without evidence

Distracting us from the bold craft that is Black excellence

Our views always shift when we fail to acknowledge that we are gifted

Though the curses of hatred have not been lifted, we have reason to hope

Remember our convalescence through recrudescence

Sing through hysteric harmonies and elegies

Strike memories and melodies on every chord

Cling to every chorus, sing on for us


I gaze beyond the world through these windows in my face

The life I once knew is no more; so, I make new beginnings

Without tears brimming or my head spinning

Or my ears ringing, but my heart singing

Where waterfalls trickle through the cracks

Clear, crisp cooling calms the craze

And horizons bleed gold over oceans

Sunsets melting over mountains

Sunrises bursting through the clouds

A realm where tranquility rivals fateful inevitability

In chance my choice is giving me

This “new normal” is horrible

But I’m adjusting willingly.


This poem, by Jonatan Francois, a senior at Miami Norland Senior High School in Miami, celebrates the strengths of speaking two languages, each learned in a distinct segment of American culture. Jonatan performed this piece as part of a “piano slam,” which incorporates keyboard, spoken-word and dance.

Bilingual

The wise Dave Chappelle once said

"Every black American is bilingual

All of us.


We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview."

I'm black and bilingual ...

A duet of dialect sitting on my tongue

One to socialize, one to survive

A code switching chameleon

Changing colors depending on the color I'm interacting with

I change cultures like how I change clothes

My wardrobe

Depends on the world I'm submerged in.


When I'm in an ebony environment

In the company of people

Whose melanin sits unapologetically on their skin

I speak my native language of Ebonics

With rhythm my ancestors passed down to me

I speak the language of rappers spitting bars on the radio

Of black men talking sports in the barbershop

Of black women sharing gossip with a side of tea after church service

Of slaves serenading each other in the field to make life more bearable

My accent has a musical punch

Carrying traces of the tunes of Haiti

My colorful Caribbean voice imperfect and informal

But no imitation

This is my most organic voice

The one I use to open up

Behind closed doors.


In another world

Where I'm the Yin and everybody else is the yang

Everybody else is the light and I'm the

Darkness

I change the tune of my tone

I speak polite

I speak right

Or as the black community likes to call it I speak white

My proper pitch pitches professionalism

I feel like a black sheep in white sheep 's clothing

A world class actor

I put the art in artificial and articulate

Painting my speech to sound more polite

Orchestrating my words to sound intelligent

Drawing out my most sophisticated vocabulary to sound like I belong

I speak the language of those on the top of the food chain

Of one percenters

Of those who have never felt the fear of being hunted

Of privilege passed down from generation to generation

The bass in my voice is gone

To make sure they can't label me aggressive

The Ebonics erased

The pulse of my words monotone

A minor speaking sounds of a major majority

My will to survive and thrive

Forced me to abandon my individuality

The Hate U Give

Silenced the melanin melody in my voice


The third world lives inside me

A conflicted world full of identity crisis

I'm fighting to eradicate the ensemble of voices within

To free myself from the choir of culture on the tip of my tongue

I'm just another black person

With a cacophony of culture, we have to conduct

To break through glass ceilings and overstep obstacles

There's a solution to silence these songs of stereotypes

Listen to my most important voice

The one that sings in my head

Telling me to be myself

I can no longer whitewash my most powerful instrument

No longer speak a foreign language in enemy territory

So, I'm studying the notes to the sound of my music

Learning to banish the burden of being bilingual

Understanding how to be comfortable in the skin I was born in

Until I'm able to waltz into any room and be who I truly am

A conductor to a beat that harmonizes with my blackness.


Andrea Mejia Garcia, a 10th grader at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, turned a class assignment into a poem about the vibrancy of her family’s homeland, Guatemala. Andrea says that by connecting her to her heritage, the poem gave her “an inner peace” that helped her cope with the tragedies of the pandemic.

Guatemala: My Root

As I look around, I see the legendary Quetzal birds

dancing in the wind

while enormous trees rest beneath the dormant volcanos of my native country.

The pride I feel for Guatemala reminds me that my family has a way of always coming back to me.

...


The Monja Blanca symbolizes the peace, beauty, and cultural art of Guatemala

I see my mother embracing her ancestry,

dancing as a young woman in a photograph from long ago.

Looking at her, I see a glimpse of her blithe spirit,

almost as if she was sending me a message from the past.

For a moment, it doesn’t even look like my mother.

I see her history, the Mayan tradition, stitched into my life, seams that will never tear.


When I think of my family’s origins,

I see the vibrant colors of nature within the Guatemala’s forests and blue waters.

The green landscapes, fields punctuated by cows and pigs as connected to the land as those who walked before us.

The sun glistens on the water as the shores pass by me,

a reminder of calmer moments this world enjoyed and must experience again.


When someone asks me where I live, I say Los Angeles,

but when someone asks me where I’m from,

I say Guatemala for it is my home.

The colors of my country and my culture remain with me always,

telling me how far we’ve traveled to see the other side of this world, but the colors also remind me the many ways our hearts remain connected to each other.


Thank you to my ancestors for this gift.

I will always embrace who I am,

remembering those who surround me like a ring of Quetzal birds, singing my family’s story for you.


Brenis Bostick, an 11th grader at Miami Norland Senior High in Miami, performed this original poem in a “piano slam,” which blends keyboard, spoken-word and dance performance. His teacher, Precious Symonette, noted that by drawing on ideas from science, the poem showcases how poetry can cross academic disciplines.

Mother Miami

A darkness that

now holds her

Hope whom

remains hidden

Peace, She longs

to see

Mother Miami cries to me, hear

her sad Harmony "Help me to be

what I once was."

...


As the tide begins to rise

like a melody her

children cry as we become

submerged, in the waters

that once brought Joy.

Mother Miami calls to me,

"Help me to be what I once was."


Her beauty continues to fade

as the foundation of

pollution is laid

upon her surface.

Mother Miami calls to me

" Help me to be what I once was."


Her core corrupted

As she takes in the toxicity that flows like

rhymes ever-changing, Her sense of smell

becomes impaired,

as the emissions of gases are released into the air.


Her water no longer labeled clean

as pollution is now an

invasive species. Mother

Miami calls to me,

"Help me to be what I once was."


As the dynamic of her soulful cries grow weak,

Her children now weep for the pain we've caused her.

We denied her Quality Air by sinning in the

act of deforestation. Mother Miami calls to

me,

"Help me"

After countless warnings from the

changes in climate she begins to lose

life,

as we continue to drain what once was

given naturally. She can no longer drink

for her waters are now poisoned, she

has trouble breathing for the air is

unclean.

Mother Miami

calls to me,

"Help me" she

sings

"Help me”


The smile she had that once brought warmth,

It is now replaced by the heat waves of

global warming. She sweats and no

longer knows the weather,

For it changes like the pitch of a key never remaining the same.


Mother Miami has called for me.

I hear her song, I danced to her Waltz and I've answered her call.


I must help her to be, not what she was but

new and revived Mother Miami you no

longer need to cry you're sad Harmony.

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