[I]t is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions that result from our misnaming them...
The 2014 team performing “Fences.”
Gabrielle Bienasz ’16, Bria Johnson ’14, Chloe Matthews ’14, and Julia Powell ’16
As the poets take the stage, I can see their nervous energy. It is finals night for the ALL CITY Teen Poetry Slam Festival at the Manship Theatre, and they have spent all afternoon, and every free moment they could find in the last week, rehearsing the poem that they wrote together and are about to perform. The four poets station themselves across the stage with deliberate stiffness, standing rigidly and holding hands with the people next to them at an angle that creates what I know is the outline of a picket fence. Beginning together, “We fences, we see everything,” the poets in turn describe the views in their neighborhoods: what a fence might witness that the people might not see or want to see. The fences are chain link or wood, perfectly manicured or in disrepair, and they stretch all over town, both connecting and dividing the city. But in each case these fences “see” people performing and pretending: children pretending to be adults or to be dutiful carriers of parents’ ideologies, parents holding up facades of perfection that mask deep divisions, children playing pretend with the adult world, the adult world also pretending to be something else. As the poets weave their individual stories and observations together, they make layered and complex critiques of their worlds, but the strength of their performance evaporates my concerns that their ideas won’t be clear to the audience.
As the nods, snaps, and sighs of the audience turn to applause and we wait for the judges’ response, I watch with new amazement and pride, even though I’ve seen this many times, and even as I worry that they’ve broken the time limit or that they’ll be too hard on themselves over a missed line or misspoken word and won’t see that they nailed it. I repeat to myself the slam poetry mantra, “The points are not the point; the poetry is the point,” as if I could remind my team telepathically.
As a teacher and coach, I love the entire process of working with my poetry team on a group piece, from their first conversations to this final performance. With up to four poets collaborating to write, choreograph, and perform a poem together, these pieces offer a powerful challenge to a team. Each year, when my students begin the process of brainstorming, they quickly realize that they need to find a topic that matters to all of them, but that they each have something different to say about. As they decide on their topic and begin to map out on my whiteboard what each poet will contribute, they find that their different identities, perspectives, and experiences are a source of strength. Building on each other’s ideas, the poets work to find the common ground that will bring their piece together and the distinct individual voices that will make it their own, thinking carefully about how their stories will connect and how they will differ. For example, as this process unfolded for “Fences," co-author Chloe Matthews ’14 notes that despite her concerns about how poets’ differences might ultimately link together, "The singular fence was a metaphor we were able to use to firmly imply that, while our different perspectives mattered individually, none were any more or less significant in the grand scheme of it all.” Though I hope to support them with a well-timed question or a push to sharpen an image or explore an idea a bit further, but my role at this stage is mostly as a witness to their creation. And as a witness, appropriately, I find something poetic in the ways that they honor each others’ stories, the connections that they create across race, gender, religion, class, and sexuality that value their differences without minimizing or polarizing.
Because they are adolescents, all of the students I teach are in a critical stage of understanding how their identities are shaped by but exceed these identity markers. Because I teach English, the tools I have to support that endeavor are reading and writing, and they can be powerful tools. I work to pose questions and introduce my students to texts that help them to consider how their own stories intersect with and diverge from the stories of others, that ask them to explore how history and culture shape all of our stories, and that call for them to engage with information that often challenges their beliefs and understandings. We discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s claim that “how [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, [and] how many stories are told, are really dependent on power,” and we consider stories’ power "to dispossess and to malign,” but also “to empower and to humanize” by reading and responding to literature that represents identity and difference in many different ways. The results of that work are highly individual: while some students take firm steps toward seeing identity in a critical historical and social context, others dismiss what they see as a political agenda, and many simply build their ability to consider others’ perspectives and extend the range of perspectives they have examined.
I know I share with all my colleagues a commitment to teaching for community, social justice, and respecting the dignity of every person. In my classroom and beyond it, that commitment means recognizing and honoring our differences and our many stories.
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