I went to speak to a high school class of Bronx students, and this is what happened…

Carla’s gift to me.
Carla’s gift to me.

She asked me to pick up the pizzas. If Carla asks me to do anything, 11 out of 10 times, I’m on it. Carla was introduced to me some years ago, back when I was still rediscovering the artistry of theater work in my hands and thoughts, and Jamie found me again and reminded me of my high school drama days. We, Jamie and I, had been brought back together by cosmic forces one could surmise, and we were once again work-shopping theater, but as a model for change in schools, pushing art as a legitimate teaching force, much like sports and STEM research are widely advocated for in education budgets. The arts have been stripped of their just due as of late, but that’s an entirely different essay. I met Carla there, and her older-than-me self and I would proceed to build a budding kind of kinship, linked to dinners at outside eateries in Harlem, the same spot where, with high winds and cool drinks to match, she would tell me of seeing Malcolm X alive and speaking still, and within those breaths, would tell me the poetry I sent her had all of my voice in it, and I and my work were publishing worthy. I do believe you can fall in love with hearts and spirits, too.

It is this same kind of vintage love that brought me to classrooms at Columbia University, to speak to the newly crowned Anaïs and Kerouacs of the world, looking to make their marks and add sparkles to the field of creative writing and drama life almost 3 summers ago. It was with Carla’s push and suggestion that I wound up standing in front of students and sharing my stories. But I’m not writing about that kind of love. Not to gloss over the experience, a new kind of unearthly one where a kid from the Bronx who never graduated from college was walking on a campus and speaking to a room of kids with more privilege in their paper cuts than I could hold in the maps of my palms, all of whom would potentially graduate college and live on in my memories but, Carla asked me to pick up pizzas for this time I’m writing about now. This time, there was something else happening.

You don’t realize how heavy three large pizza boxes are until you are carrying three large pizza boxes in the Bronx, the hilliest of hilliest boroughs in New York City. You especially don’t realize how heavy three large pizza boxes are when, arriving at an entrance for Lehman College by the Bedford Park 4 train, and the nicest sister to ever guard an open campus entryway explains that you’re at the wrong gate, and you’ll have to head to the gate at the end of the block, enter that gate, then proceed to walk aaaaall (this was her emphasis, not mine) to end of THAT gate. She ended it with a note that I be sure I get off at the other exit when leaving the train. I make a note to myself following the ending of the guard’s note, to be sure to let Carla know this after my proverbial walk to Mecca with the three large pizza boxes.

Maybe I’m making up this moment, but when I walked in, and Carla made the “This is Joel” announcement, they all clapped. I think they clapped for me, not the three large pizzas. Carla had prepped them for me, sort of in the same fashion a sous chef prepares the dining area for the entrees to come. She also prepped me for them, explaining these were high school juniors and seniors, stretching across the Bronx who, because of their academic achievements, were invited to this college prep/advanced course taught from 4:00 pm -5:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They would be coming from all walks and canvases of life and school districts, zoned schools and the like. They would be coming from neighborhoods similar to the one I grew up in. There were two students who, upon mentioning the name of the block I grew up on, gave me that look that anyone who knows anything about growing up in dangerous circumstances gives to acknowledge that yes, we know how that shit feels and looks and tastes and we’re glad someone else understands that shit, too. The class brought sodas and chips and donuts, one student came in and brought brownies.

Carla told me the faculty of the school told her the students may not warm to each other, because they all came from different schools and the classes had a tendency to get cliquey. Carla told me she didn’t have that problem. I agreed. I remarked to her that light, no matter how dark the space, always finds a way to travel, how this room was abuzz with laughter, inside jokes, smiles, high school girl and boy gossip, questions about homework and papers due, questions about pizza slices and “do you need anything”, there were a lot of those, a lot these young adults carrying this energy of what can we do for each other. I remarked to Carla how sad it made me, how the world tends to try to break the nerves of our youth, strips them of their imagination, pours kerosene to their dreams. But at that moment, they were as alive as the descending night clouds were, the ones hovering over before I walked through the building meant for college students with a room now occupied by students too young to vote, but old enough to make a difference.

I told them pieces of my story, of the schizophrenic father, of my Caribbean mother, of my writing and my process. I told them about Carla and our story and our elders and the stories they carry that are greater than any books ever to be borrowed from the dopest of libraries. “Dopest” is not a word recognized by our standards of definition. Spell check doesn’t survive here, I should have announced to them. I read them my poems, and they snapped. I shared a piece where I mentioned not having a father and asked for those to raise their hands if they shared the sentiment and some raised their hands and I thought I could have flooded the room, flooded the room right then and there and it was all I could do later to place my hand over my heart to make sure it was still beating, that it was still ticking, still where I left it last. They asked me about my inspiration, they asked me why I sometimes why I write in Spanish, and I explained that my daughter’s mother is Dominican and so my daughter is an Afro-Latina. her mother and I have decided she will identify as whatever so chooses, but in that classroom I would tell them my daughter juggles both worlds like a miraculous unicorn and is all parts Tubman and Frida, and that they too could identify as whomever and whatever they liked. Later, one student would ask me if the absence of a father made me long for one and I had to grip the tears a little because, look at how smart she is, look at how grown they are, look how far we have come here. We need to give our young adults, our world-shapers and globe-shifters, more credit.

I read long poems and one student would proceed to ask me about “Dear Black Poet, Today You Are About to Die”, and what the title meant, and he said “on second thought I’ll wait,” and I agreed. And when we returned at the end, he explained it as how I meant it to be seen but I proceeded to also explain that poetry defies conventional means of explaining things, and however he would choose to interpret it would be how it would need to be interpreted, for him. I told them they were magic, I spoke about their power. One of them was a dancer, another a singer. I left feeling like I learned more from that classroom than I had in the two years of my own college experiment when I was faking tying shoe strings to mack on single ladies on Temple University’s campus, however many moons ago that was.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, when Carla tell ms she is going to mail me Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”. Sixty-eight pages in, and I’m thankful for the satirical stab at race that is Beatty’s writing. The book came with a card. The card is now a bookmark for the “the Sellout”. In the card, Carla explained to me that in the classes literature presentations, one of the students mentioned my name and Ta-Nehisi Coates name in the same sentences. She was speaking of power, of finding and owning your voice. She said the student quoted me with a phrase she had written down, about “doing as much good as we can.” I want to keep the card as a bookmark, but I want to also keep it as a flag, I also want to keep it as a steeple, I also want to keep it as a promise. The card serves as a reminder that we walk into spaces looking to give, and sometimes we will receive far more than what we initially came in with; that we cannot limit potential, that seeds of greatness exists in pupils, that we have to see each individual as such, each with their own set of minor notes and fluctuations, each one bearing gifts and seeds and fruits and grains and minerals and dreams and daggers and demons and one of the students had a Facebook page dedicated to here deadbeat dad and I prayed I never became the kind of person that would allow their child to feel that kind of angst so I have to keep reading them poems I have to keep creating fathers for them in the words so they can reach to them and rub their cheeks against the ghosts of them and count the tears and write them down over and over. I left wanting to tell them not to worry, that the world will try to scar them tell them that they do not matter because of history and the media and the news and the gunshots that are louder than the sink noise, but they are flowers and water and engineers and lawyers and midwives and doulas and they have science in their eyes, that they are the same as the pyramids. All that I learned from them.

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