It’s hardly the news of headlines and front pages, but for the last few years some of the city’s most prolific and profound teenage poets have come from Lane Technical High School, a north side public school best known for producing football players and engineers.
In this year’s citywide high school poetry contest sponsored by New Expression newspaper, six of ten finalists came from Lane: Dan Bora, Crystal Carabez, Jesse Maltz, Jessica Nelson, Francisco Olivares, and Christine Virella. Last year Lane had three finalists, and in 1993 Shirley Sanchez, a Lane senior, won the top award for “The Cold Beach,” a sonnet about love whose central conceit was influenced by the metaphysical poets: “You’re like the salty waters of the sea / And I the sand that spreads all around you.”
“When I see the poems these kids produce it reaffirms my belief in their potential,” says Randall Bates, the English teacher at Lane who coaches most of these poets. “There’s something good in these kids, even if we don’t see it.”
Most of the credit, his students say, goes to Bates, a rabid basketball fan out of Decatur, who moved to Chicago in the late 60s and has taught high school English in the public system since 1971. He’s more of a reader than writer of poetry (his favorite poets are Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Dylan Thomas) but that’s just as well because he’s free from any desire to compete with his students.
Bates’s secret, say the students, is that he takes the intimidation out of poetry. He teaches them irony, symbolism, and alliteration, and encourages them to write about things they can see, hear, and feel on any corner of the city. Most of all, he gets them to capture themselves as they are–impressionable, hopeful, and young, despite their skepticism. “He teaches us to write about what we know,” says Bora. “He makes us see the poetry in everyday things, like a guy waiting for a bus.”
Bates says he’s not surprised students take to poetry. It has a natural attractiveness to the teenage mind. High school students are, for example, fascinated by adult hypocrisy, feeling both elated and disappointed when they catch teachers or parents saying one thing and practicing another. From such routine observations emerges an appreciation of irony. “Irony is complex,” says Bates, “but once your eyes are opened to it, you see it everywhere.”
Students will, for example, stand in the school’s courtyard before Lane’s most precious symbol, a statue of an Indian, and note how it’s covered with bird crap and spiderwebs and how its arms stretch toward the sky like it wants to escape. Of that statue, Jose Moya, a recent graduate, wrote “Alone and Proud,” in which the Indian
Almost seems pushed aside–
Nailed to an invisible cross
I tend to wonder what keeps him
Rooted to that same small patch of Earth
I sometimes think that he’s less a friend
And more a trophy.
Of course teenagers have their limits. They feel almost compelled to conform, blocking their minds to things that are different for fear of seeming out of fashion. “My job is to get them out of themselves and into the world,” says Bates. “Given a totally free hand, their poetry would be very narcissistic and highly personal. I break them away from themselves so they can see that it’s a big world which doesn’t have to revolve around them.”
Few students had previous training. Many had never written a poem in their lives before Bates’s class. What they knew about poetry was unformed and unrefined. Shel Silverstein was the most influential poet in Maltz’s life. Olivares got hooked from a chance encounter with T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which he found in an old book left behind on a table in his drafting class.
Part of the class is given over to reading Frost and Dickinson, but the students aren’t impressed. Most of them have not taken the time to read Frost, so they are ill-prepared to comment on his work. “Frost’s too cutesy,” says Olivares. “I like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.”
“Robert Frost is too happy for me,” says Bora. “My favorite poet is Edgar Allan Poe. I like morbid poetry.”
Bates says he understands their antipathy to great poets like Frost and Dickinson, even if he doesn’t share it. “To them, a poet like Frost is all about trees, grass, birds–things they don’t know,” says Bates. “They live in the city. When they look out their windows they see winos, junkies, and trash. The nature Frost saw is an abstraction to them.
“In general, I don’t spend a lot of class time making them read poetry. I don’t want them to become intimidated. It’s intimidating to give them Frost’s “Acquainted With the Night,’ and say, “OK, you write one.’ That’s like playing one-on-one against Jordan. You’ll get smashed every time.”
Instead, Bates will take them on walks through the city or lead them to the window of his third-floor classroom and ask them to write about what they see. “I tell them, pick a place you like in Chicago and inventory that place,” says Bates. “Find the real meaning in scenes from everyday life.”
From this assignment, Olivares wrote “Portals,” an angry Ginsbergian poem about “green dumpsters of these cemeterial alleys” in which “are crying newborns whose cherubic faces serve as food for the voracious flies of belligerency.”
Elenita Julian wrote about a late-night gay bar on the north side “with those black tinted windows . . . Curious like a cat / I try to peep. / Mysteriously it opens / When I’m asleep.”
And Bora wrote “Clark & Belmont,” a playful depiction of the “lost boys” who wear “all black” and “sleep all day and play at night” because “their parents told them not to . . .
“They gather beneath their corporate / totem pole. “To Dunkin’ Donuts! We won’t / need to depend on the system! We’ll rebel!”‘
“I’m celebrating those guys and I’m being ironic,” says Bora, a 17-year-old senior. “It’s so ironic that of all the places to hang out they chose Dunkin’ Donuts. I mean, why not go to the park? They think they’re free, but they’re really not. They still need money to live. I go by and they say, “Hey, man, can you spare a dollar?’ But then, they’re doing what they want. So they have their freedom, but it has a price.”
It was an ordinary drive home from a friend’s house in Highland Park that moved Jesse Maltz to write “Rumble Strips,” a lovely poem about growing up and moving on:
I-94 to Chicago
Brown Eyed Girl softly hums
through the old speakers.
Daddy always said Van Morrison meant to say blue.
Strange how certain songs
recreate old memories.
with vibrant sunflowers
fire-flies in jars
and melted strawberry ice-cream cones.
The pink goo dripping from my finger tips
forming tiny droplets
over blue sidewalk chalk.
Everything after is hazy.
Each season melts into the next,
snowflakes and sand
coincide forming one big blur . . .
Rumble strips warn me,
the toll-way is near.
No longer a free ride.
The cold autumn air throws
dead brown and orange leaves at my windshield.
Fall melts into winter,
as another year passes away.
“I was just driving along last fall when all the leaves were changing and “Brown-Eyed Girl’ came on the radio and I just couldn’t believe that time had slipped by so fast,” says Maltz, a 16-year-old junior. “Things were so much easier when I was younger. My father used to ride me around on his bike and instead of singing “brown-eyed girl’ he’d sing “blue-eyed girl’ because I have blue eyes. Life had always been so easy until now. My parents paid for everything, they sheltered me. But next year I’m going to college and there will be big changes.”
Maltz’s poem was second in the New Expression contest (first place went to Brent Nikolin of Kenwood Academy). Bates counts it as one of the finest poems he’s ever read by a student.
“I tell them all the time: “Find an image. Don’t tell me how you feel–that’s too abstract,”‘ he says. “And Jesse did that. I can feel the car rattle as it goes bumpity-bump over that rumble strip, which is in the road to warn us of danger ahead.
“It’s a beautiful poem, and I suspect it means more to Jesse than it can to any of us. I tell the kids at the start of the class that if nothing else, poetry allows you a voice to create a moment in your life. I tell them you might put these poems in an envelope and never read them again until you discover that envelope years later when you’re ready to move from one apartment to another. And you’ll read your poems and they’ll take you back in time. You can’t stop time, but a poem is one way to say that this moment in my life will never be lost.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Randy Tunnell.