American Graduate: Poetic Justice Part 2 - Graduation Day
WUNC is a part of the American Graduate Project. It's a public media initiative looking at the drop out crisis across the country. As a part of this project we commissioned slam poets Kane Smego and Will McInnerney to teach a writing workshop at Northern High School in Durham. Over the last 10 weeks, Kane and Will taught a group of students how to use poetry to tell their own stories. Today is graduation day at Northern and three of the students from our workshop will be receiving their diplomas.
Will McInerney: Dontá, Fontezia, and Aaron, three of the young poets from our program have a lot to share and are ready for the challenge. This afternoon is graduation, and all three will be crossing the stage. But this was not an easy journey, or an expected outcome. In spoken word, they found a way to channel the experience.
Dontá McCormick: Runaway train on route 16, I repeat, runaway teen on year 16. If you listen to the iron there’s a scrapes against the…I was first at Southern, then I got kicked out of Southern for some things that I should have never done.
Will McInerney: That’s Dontá; he’s 20 years old and graduating high school today. For most people, 4 years in high school is enough to make you never want to be in a classroom again. When you have spent 6 years between 2 schools and you are 2 years older than all of your peers, dropping out definitely seems like the answer in the back of the book. Even resilience has an expiration date.
Dontá McCormick: I ran away when I was 16, I was still in high school, just trying to find myself and make things work.
Will McInerney: Soon after, Dontá’s grandmother took him in. He tells us she’s the only one who wouldn’t let him give up.
Dontá McCormick: I made it and I know she’s gon’ be crying on the day.
Will McInerney: Fontezia’s story is a rose stem cut from the thicket. Beautiful, but hard to hold in your hands. So nowadays she grips pens and peels back the petals to let us understand.
Fontezia Walker: When people look at me I’m just another black chick, a thick chick, another yellow red boned chick that lives in the hood, a chick that won’t amount to nothing, 5’ 3” large child that trying to walk the footprints what was created by so many other hands.
Will McInerney: A lot of people have an image of what a drop out looks likes. Spoken word helps our students challenge those stereotypes, and shed light on the complexity of their stories.
Fontezia Walker: Family, I mean, I don’t really have family to necessarily worry about me graduating, so I push myself to get where I’m going since my mom past two years ago. So I’ve been fighting for this day for two years even stronger than what I was doing already.
Lift me up above the Twin Towers I once stood, ‘cause I won’t let them knock me down. I stand alone, I breathe on my own, I achieve on my own. I climb my own way up my tall missing-piece, broken-down, freighty-put-together ladder blind folded, and I shout mommy. Is where you are but they don’t know that you are the angel within the soles of my shoes that push me forward.
Will McInerney: For some of the students we’ve been working with, like Fontezia, the challenges outside of the classroom can be beyond difficult. When you lose a parent at 16, how do you keep school on your list of priorities? Fontezia’s heart is the boulder that guards her mother’s tomb, letting the memories of her creep back out like Lazarus onto her tongue. If always gives me chills how sometimes when she speaks about her mother it’s in the present tense. It almost makes us forget for a moment, and imagine that she is just going to show up one day to pick up her daughter after class. But it makes sense, because her mother is still very present in her life, in her poetry, in her thoughts, or as Fontezia says, she is “the whispers in the night”.
Fontezia Walker: I promise I won’t let you go, a bond that’s unbreakable, that can’t be replicated or duplicated. You believed I could do the impossible, the unthinkable, so it’s safe for me to open these weary eyes and face the judgmental. So I ask now, when you look at me, am I just another black chick...a thick chick, another yellow red boned chick that lives in the hood?
I’ll be the first one to walk across the stage out of me and my sister, so I’m doing this me, my sister, and my mom.
Will McInerney: Aaron lives with his grandparents. They will be in the stands this afternoon when he gets his diploma, along with a packed row of family coming from all over.
Aaron Jones: I think some people from Pennsylvania are coming down; hopefully my aunt Myrtle can make it that would be nice. My great grandma is already here, she’s gonna be there. So a couple generations gonna be there.
Will McInerney: For Aaron, high school ends today, 5 years after it began.
Aaron Jones: Yeah man, freshman year…freshman year of high school, man. I came in here like I was running the place. Never went to class, always hanging out with my peoples, didn’t know what homework was, um…so I definitely flunked freshman year.
I was on the verge of dropping out, not giving a hoot about my education, seeing it as an option, since all I seemed to learn was things I would never use in my life. I was on the verge of being sent to an orphanage, due to all the headaches and heartaches caused in a place that felt more like a slaughter house than a home. I was on the verge of grabbing a knife and carving out my heart because all it ever did was cause me pain, as if a tumor had grown on it, and blocked all of its tunnels…
Will McInerney: We come into classrooms, group homes, community centers to work with youth with the hope that this art form can be the wild pitch in a full count that helps them walk across a stage or into the next one in their lives. When we met Aaron,
he had already found his game changer; we were just there to nurture it.
Aaron Jones: I remember the first thing that like really made me first start focusing on school, was when I walked past the chorus room, and I heard the people singing. I was like man; I got to be in there. So I started that next year.
Will McInerney: Aaron is also a runner. In fact, it was turning his grades around and his athletic promise that caught the eye of a college scout, so much so that he was offered a track and field scholarship to NC State in the fall. It’s been a long journey.
Aaron Jones: I was on the verge of failure, and as I stood on my tight wire, juggling the weight of all my pain and stress over a pit of infinite darkness, the tight wire snaps, and before I fall into what I consider my fate, I grab the dangling string and held on for dear life.
Basically that’s where I was in my life. I was in the middle of a tight wire, and it just got too heavy at a point when my life just snapped, you know. And I figured I was just end up somewhere in the back corner dead, or you know maybe in jail. When it snapped, and I was falling, about ready to give up, I grabbed on. I think it was all this art stuff, I think there was a little string that said art on it or something. I don’t know what it was but like I said, I grabbed on, I held on for awhile and I slowly climbed back up.
Will McInerney: What makes a student drop out? A million things. We don’t have the answers and it’s not that simple, but what makes them stay? Love, believe that their identity and their story matter, that their voice is valued. Today we’ll be at Northern High School remembering our own ceremonial day and watching three young adults cross the stage and begin to shape their future. We couldn’t be more proud.
Eric Hodge: Kane Smego and Will McInnerney are Directors of the youth poetry organization Sacrificial Poets. Their work at Northern High School in Durham is a part of WUNC's American Graduate Project. It's made possible in part by GlaxoSmithKline, The Goodnight Educational Foundation, The James M Bryan Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by the contributions of WUNC listeners.