This past school year, WUNC partnered with the group Sacrificial Poets on a series of after-school writing workshops. The goal was to help young people tell their own stories using poetry, performance art and now, radio. This past semester, poets Will McInerney and CJ Suitt taught a small group at Phoenix Academy, an alternative school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District. They produced this poetic reflection on the experience.
Phoenix academy sits on a curve of Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill. Many students here will be victims of the school to prison pipeline, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization that render them invisible with no control over how they are seen and in some cases how they see themselves, gifted with vision and insight.
"Okay, my name is John Williams. I’m the principal at phoenix academy high school, been here now for about 8 months."
Williams is a man of service, a 20-year air force veteran turned high school principal. These days he wears his heart on his sleeve where medals used to be. His hands are a squadron of hope, trying to help students whose futures have been hijacked by test scores, rap sheets, and everything in between.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro have some of the best schools in the state, but when kids fall through the cracks, they land at Phoenix.
"No matter who they are or what they have gone through or what they have experienced, it never gives me the right to compromise what I believe they can accomplish, and I won’t," Williams says.
"We don’t have problem children here, we have children with problems."
Phoenix is a small school - 30 kids, no football, no band, no cheerleaders.
This is why we are here.
CJ and I came to Phoenix to start a poetry team and along the way we found another coach who was already on the job.
"My name is Rachel Kares. I live in Carrboro, North Carolina, and I teach at Phoenix Academy High School. I teach English 2, 3, and 4, so World Lit, American Lit, and British Lit."
Kares teaches her students the power of putting their own story on the lines. The team met during lunch hours - Noah, Andrew, Jefferson, and Jay.
We practiced twice a week - put pens to paper - and by May they were ready for the first test, The Sacrificial Poets Word Rivalry Poetry Slam; 13 local schools signed up and 1 spot left for the taking.
"Welcome to Word Rivalry 2013, if you just walked in, you just walked into an explosion of voices from all over the triangle area, we have 6 cities slash towns that are represented here, 14 different high schools," says Sacrifical Poet Kane Smego.
From Phoenix, Jay stepped up and performed on final stage.
"Lost and confused I’m bruised,
Cautious fingers slide down my jagged spine,
And it gives me aches in my mind,
Trying to control my gift of prose.
But I still got a body that will twist and bind when its combined,
You know what?
I wont let this scare bend me,
I wont this scare with them fools shake me,
Because I got angels that will save me,
Because that’s what I’ve been praying for lately.
And I know,
I sure as hell know those demons aren’t going to take me."
Jay did well at the competition, but this is no Disney story. Phoenix didn’t win word rivalry in a miracle underdog upset. They have a long way to go.
And Principal Williams knows that.
"You know why these children are at phoenix academy? Something along the line happened in their life that made this an option," Williams says.
The school year is over, but the team is coming back next year.
And they want more.