Young Poets Society

The students in Sandra Cap’s class use what they’ve read to write about their own realities.

By Benjamin Ortiz

Twelve-year-old Liam Winters still writes poetry even though his brother beat him up once for reading a poem aloud. “It was a poem about flowers,” he explains. While his brother remains no fan of poetry, Winters now submits his poems to contests and regularly reads in front of his class at Keller School in Beverly. The students in teacher Sandra Cap’s seventh-grade English class are always ready to recite their poems. After the pledge of allegiance, Winters delivers his own “Martin Luther King Jr.” in the style of an evangelist: “He was put down and arrested / But he rose through the hatred, the violence, and the unfairness.”

Classmate Jonah Thompson takes the floor and matter-of-factly announces his poem “Death,” which he recites from memory with a hint of a smirk. “You can’t escape your awful fate… / But death isn’t always so bad / If you do what you’re supposed to / It’ll make you glad… / I wish I could tell you more / Just pray that death skips past your door.” In the manner of a poetry slammer, Thompson talks about his inspiration. “I wrote that in sixth grade. I made it up at lunch because I forgot to write it the night before for class. Some kid wrote a poem called ‘What Is Life?’ and I thought I could write a better poem, so I wrote about death. But you know, death is gonna happen one day anyway, so why be afraid? It’s just a part of life.”

Keller is one of 11 public elementary schools that have initiated poetry writing classes after teachers attended workshops conducted by the Poetry Center of Chicago, the nonprofit presenter of readings affiliated with the School of the Art Institute. Now in its third year, the Poetry Center’s education program has also been implemented in six alternative high schools. Poet Enid Baron originally proposed the idea of helping teachers to incorporate poetry and writing into their lesson plans. The workshop runs for nine hours over three weeks in the spring, and every winter the Poetry Center hosts a reading by students. This year’s free event will take place at 11 AM this Wednesday in the ballroom of the School of the Art Institute, 112 S. Michigan.

Baron, who directs the workshop, at first decided to focus on elementary schools because that’s where she got her start. She says she fell in love with poetry after a second-grade teacher at Kozminski School in Hyde Park read a poem to her class. “It was ‘The Mountain and the Squirrel,’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it was such a beautiful piece,” she recalls. Since then, she’s taught verse in public schools and published Baking Days, her own volume of poems. Baron feels that poetry is not given its due in children’s education. “It was poetry that first inspired me as a child to write, and so my thesis is that if you can catch children at a relatively early age and make them aware of the beauty of language, then that will translate into a love of words that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

“If you wait too long,” Baron warns, “they get a skewed idea of what poetry is, even though everybody thinks poetically in the natural course of imagination.”

Though Shakespeare may elicit groans in the classroom, Baron insists on introducing kids to the greats as early as possible. She says she’s had great success introducing William Blake to third-graders. During her six years as a teacher, she’s pieced together methods that draw on the experiences of youngsters. What’s typically categorized as “poetry for children,” she says, talks down to its audience. Instead, she relies on such writers as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, as well as works from other cultures, including Native American literature and haiku. “They’ll read a poem and maybe not understand it,” she admits, “but once they start talking together about it they get into it.”

The students in Sandra Cap’s class have already identified with the words of poets Margaret Walker and Langston Hughes, using what they’ve read to write about their own realities. Like a latter-day transcendentalist, Claudia Peters reads to the rhythm of a different drummer: “What a wonderful thing to be said– / To be your own kind / Even if you’re crazy.” Joseph Alvarado follows up with a sincere reading of his piece “To Be as One”: “The world has many great places / With many different races / Mexican, Indians, and more / To be as one is the core.” And Robyn Owens details the simple pleasures of being “African-American”: “We love to eat all kinds of food– / Greens, chicken–it’s all good.”

Cap has taught in the public school system for 27 years. She now concentrates on math and language arts at Keller. She first enrolled in the workshop two years ago and has taught poetry to this same batch of students since the fifth grade. “Once they understand a poem, they like it a lot,” she says. “They really admire how the writer was able to use words to get big ideas across in a small space.” Cap admits that poetry is not her favorite form of literature, preferring science fiction instead. “My mother read her favorite poems to me when I was growing up, and I still love those poems, so she got me into poetry. But I don’t enjoy reading poetry that much, except for children’s poetry. I learn a lot from them when I read their poems.”

Cap’s morning session is coming to a close. After 40 minutes of poetry, her students get fidgety, even if the words are coming from their own classmates. One of the last readers, Mia Verrett, asks “Can You See What I See That’s in Me?” and reads a confessional poem full of both hope and dread: “I see a poor black child / With honey brown skin / Chestnut eyes… / 5«2ÿFD with a figure everybody can see / Thirteen years in this world / Hoping to be fourteen / Wondering and wondering what’s ahead of me.” After a smattering of applause, Cap smiles and asks Delilah Boyd to read her piece titled “My Elders.” The student rises and reads in a monotone with dead seriousness: “My mother taught me to respect my elders / Even if they’re mean and grumpy / My mother taught me to respect my elders / Because one day I will become one / And expect the same respect back, in return.” She sits down with an unceremonious slump. When Cap praises her poem as one of the best in the class, Boyd responds with a frown, “I still don’t really like poetry.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lloyd DeGrane.