A Poet In Every School

The iO program is in its fourth year at Detroit's Marcus Garvey K-8 Academy and, thanks to a determined group of parent activists who obtained a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, has added even more classrooms. It's an honor to have genuine grassroots support from parents and community members who see firsthand how beautifully children respond to poetry.

In the Fall of 2013, principal James Hearn shared with the world his surprise about the power of poetry. "Even my football players love poetry!" This is what he told PBS NewsHour when the show sent a team to town to profile iO. It was clear in the interview: he had been skeptical. Wasn't poetry a frill? Irrelevant? Was it worth spending precious classroom hours and budget dollars on, given the serious issues facing children growing up in one of the most impoverished, beleaguered communities in this country?

His happy surprise has now blossomed into full-blown commitment. And the return on Garvey's iO investment continues to show up in the poetry of students like Eddie Stewart. Here is Eddie's twist on the common iO prompt: "The Next Poem I Write..."

The Last Poem I Write

The last poem I write
will tell everyone goodbye
will move on to a better place
will wish it could come home
will cry every day till it's remembered

The last poem I write
will think and think
will try to escape to freedom
will read itself until it's thought of forever
will be locked in a chest

a chest that can't be opened
by anything but the
memories of a good life
the best life with a
true family that cares

Eddie Stewart

It's educators like Mr. Hearn who make poetry possible in the lives of students like Eddie. They open their eyes to the need to offer more. They take the risk and amazing connections happen for students and the world around them.

This week I checked in with Mr. Hearn and experienced my own burst of surprise about the power of poetry. Mr. Hearn told me a wonderful story about how he'd shared one of Eddie's poems with an unlikely audience -- inmates at the Macomb County Correctional Facility where he volunteers as a speaker, mentor and role model. On that visit, his message to the inmates was the importance of bringing what is inside of us out into the world, and he used Eddie's poem as an example. As we spoke, I could feel his compassion for the young men, most in their late teens or early 20s, who had taken wrong turns. As one of them told him afterward, "Mr. Hearn, if I'd had the opportunity to write when I was that age, maybe I wouldn't be where I am now."

"What's inside," said Mr. Hearn, echoing iO's mission, "is bound to come out. I tell that to my staff all the time. It can be life saving." Perhaps I misspoke above. Those Macomb inmates would/should/ought to be a most likely audience for poetry.

Last week on March 3, I was in Washington, D.C., honored to speak at the first Poetry and Literacy Symposium sponsored by the Library of Congress. It was a joy to join my long time friends Robin Reagler and Amy Swauger from our national Writers in the Schools Alliance to speak about the impact of poetry in classrooms, and to meet and learn from other groups as well. The inspiring work of The Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, an organization dedicated to violence prevention and empowering incarcerated youth through literature and creative writing, especially echoed with Mr. Hearn's story. As their Co-founder and Executive Director Tara Libert so powerfully said, this work is quite literally saving lives.

Robin Reagler concluded our panel by sounding the motto I have been touting for years: A Poet in Every School. I like this rallying cry. It echoes "A Chicken in Every Pot" for pithiness and simplicity, if not for nutrition. It's revolutionary and embodies huge social change. Next summer at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Toronto, scholar friends will present a conversation on "Detroit: the Psyche of a City," using tools of "community psychology" to examine our city's resilience, strengths, and potential for empowerment and transformation. I'm proud that iO will be offered as a case study of a grassroots initiative that embodies creativity, commitment, and caring and shows potential for change despite all the challenging urban contexts.

And I love the notion of the psyche of a city. "Psyche" of course means breath, life, soul -- and what is poetry if not the words of the soul? I'm glad that our city leaders have made "healthy, whole neighborhoods" a priority. Those neighborhoods will work best if they are anchored by healthy and whole schools, places that will be far more nurturing and positive if each one is enriched by the passion and dedication of a poet.