American Graduate: Poetic Justice Part 1

Jun 1, 2012

WUNC is part of the American Graduate Project. It’s a public media initiative looking at education and the drop out crisis in North Carolina. It’s a big issue, by some measurements, an estimated 1-in-4 high school students will drop out before graduation day. As a part of this project WUNC commissioned slam poets Kane Smego and Will McInnerney to host an after-school writing workshop at Northern High School in Durham. Today we begin a series of poetic reflections on their classroom experience.

Kane Smego: Welcome to Poetic Justice. Where poetry is more than tulip blossoms and rose thorns, complex language from simple imaginations, rhymes from dead white guys.

Will McInnerney: Welcome to Poetic Justice where students trade standardized tests for testimonies in verse. Where spelling, grammar, and structure are swapped out for honesty, vulnerability, and the courage needed to tell our own stories.

Kane Smego: Frank sits in the front row everyday, his Adam’s apple protruding like a tombstone for all the stories buried in the cemetery of his throat smothered beneath the shovels full of textbook answers he’s been asked to swallow and regurgitate. There’s a voice box heavy as a casket full of reasons to be opened because he is the only expert on his history. So his first assignment: to tell us how he thinks the world judges him.

Frank: He's nothing but a thug on the street. Selling drugs to everyone he meets. Using the excuse he's just trying to make ends meet, Please, we all know he's gonna end up in jail, With a wifebeater and saggy pants it ain't that hard to tell. He keeps his hands on a gun.

Will McInnerney: Then we asked him to set the record straight. Frank's got a way with words, verses lined with box cutter blades. He knows how to deconstruct the stereotypes he’s been cornered into.

Frank: Well let me tell you who Franklin Antonio Brown is. I am a man of purpose who has so much love for his family it's crazy. I am the youngest of 3 boys but I established my position as man of the house. Without a dad around somebody had to do it. It's been so hard to make friends because my family kept moving.

Will McInnerney: Welcome to poetic justice. There are no grades here, no diploma ceremony and this class may not help you get a job

Kane Smego: But life’s a whole lot more than test scores and paychecks maybe we don’t build resumes but we do build character and trust and belief in oneself.

Frank: And if you really knew me, you would know how much I've been stressing just to graduate, Just to hear my family screaming out. And if you really knew me you would know how much it hurts me that you judge me, before you really knew me.

Will McInnerney: Everyday in the classroom is a challenge. We don’t claim to have all the answers. How do you teach a lesson on a subject you still haven’t mastered yourself? We learn along with them.

Kane Smego: Some days the classroom is an Easter Sunday service bursting at the pews and others, Well, the sanctuary is a little thinner Their teacher, Ms. Alcorn is the mother hen of the classroom.

Ms. Alcorn: So many of our students come in everyday with unbelievable problems at home or in the neighborhood. I have students who say I couldn't do my homework last night because the lights were out. They need a space to say what's on their minds, a place to speak with freedom.

Kane Smego: Remember what we say, if you don't tell your own story, someone else will.

Will McInnerney: Welcome to Poetic Justice.

Kane Smego: The door to this classroom is always open a fresh page always there to welcome them back.

Next week at this time, Graduation Day.