Carole Henaff
From students in a ‘failed’ school came poems of honesty and power
Carole Henaff

For two years I frequently drove an eight-mile stretch of the Princeton Pike. I would drop off my son at the Princeton Friends School, adjacent to Battlefield Park at the edge of the Institute Woods. Then I would drive south for eight miles, past fields with houses so far from the road that they are not even visible, into Lawrence Township, where large, comfortable middle-class homes sit 50 feet back from the sidewalk. As I drove through Lawrence I would notice smaller houses with short front yards, until I finally reached my destination: Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Trenton. Here, the front yards completely disappear; row houses sit just inches from the sidewalk.  

The first day I visited, I parked on the street in front of the school, a massive, old brick structure. When I went inside to ask the secretary if it was OK to park there, she said, “Well, I wouldn’t.” One morning when I arrived, I asked about the numerous police cars outside. “A gang incident,” someone told me. The metal detector in front of the main entrance wasn’t used much, but all the school entrances were locked as soon as the school day began.  

America is a vast land of millions of miles of roads, but to me, America is just one street, eight miles long. From Princeton to Trenton, in a mere 15 minutes anyone can travel from extreme wealth to dire poverty. It’s just one road all the way, and as the green fields and trees gradually give way to laundromats, gas stations, and corner stores, it seems to me that all of America lives in this eight miles.  

For more than 25 years I have been using storytelling and creative writing to teach at-risk children, operating from the assumption that oral tales can inspire, motivate, and teach students who don’t do well in school. I spent 50 days between December 2004 and May 2006 as a teaching artist at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. In June 2006 the school was permanently closed, because of its consistent lack of improvement on mandated tests. In 2006, only 21.6 percent of MLK’s students had achieved proficiency in language arts, and math scores were even lower. By contrast, in Princeton, 96.6 percent were either proficient or advanced proficient.  

And yet, my students in this failing school had not failed at all. My students, whose test scores “proved” incompetence in reading and writing, easily were the best writers I had ever worked with. Their poetry paints an entirely different picture than the database would have it. My students’ voices emerged as they listened to stories and poetry and accepted invitations to speak their truth.  

Usually I began with a story. A story shared orally without a book is different from a story that we read or watch on television. The deeply personal engagement of the teller with the tale allows listeners to enter the world of the story effortlessly. It is education that leads with the heart. In the classroom, once our stories opened the door to feeling and thinking, we moved to discussion and writing. I often shared poetry to help students reflect upon and shape their experiences and memories.  

A poem by George Ella Lyon titled “Where I’m From” provides a model and inspiration for other writers to think about where they’re from. Lyon’s poem begins, “I am from clothespins, / From Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride. / I am from the dirt under the back porch.” The simplicity of her images and memories helped my students to perceive their environment and lives as raw material for poetry. Once they realized that they could talk about the people, voices, sounds, smells, and tastes in their lives — once they tuned into the vividness and color of their world — they couldn’t wait to write.  

Eighth-grader Thomas Miller’s poem was selected for Under Age, an annual book of student poetry published by the Arts Council of Princeton. The reference in the last line to “red or blue” refers to two gangs, the Bloods and the Crips: “I’m from a spot people say what’s good / I’m from a spot where to get respect you got to give it / I’m from a spot where if you got mouth you better back it up / I’m from a spot where the ladies are fine / I’m from a spot where you better know when and how to fight / I’m from a spot where people ask you for money / I’m from a spot where Puerto Ricans cook cheese steaks / I’m from a spot if you give love, you get love / I’m from a spot that you be happy to call home / I’m from a spot where most guys don’t see their dads / I’m from a spot where moms are all you got / I’m from a spot cops patrol every hour / I’m from a spot where your people on the corner / I’m from a spot where you have a choice of two colors — red or blue.”  

John Page, another eighth-grade student, had a creative spin on every poetry activity. His writing displayed a biting honesty coupled with a sense of rhythm. John’s “Where I’m From” poem was his favorite piece: “I’m from the day of January 18 / That’s the day I was born. / I’m from friends that always keep me on point / Kervin Roger Lacelless Dexter dem my boys. / I’m from a family with two mothers, no fathers. / One of those mothers left me / The other always kept me. / I’m from the dusty roads of Dillon, South Carolina. / That’s where I’m from. / I’m from the birth canal of a drug addict that needs to be reformed. / I’m from the heart of a new mother that’s always warm. / People think I’m from Jamaica or some place foreign / But all they have to do is read this poem.”

I looked forward to my trips down Princeton Pike to see what the students would write next. One day I asked them to imagine someone in their lives talking with them, as the mother counsels her son in Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.” In a class of hip eighth-graders with life experience far beyond their years, some of the students cried when they listened to this poem, “Message from My Big Brother,” by their classmate Lamont Hilton: “Dear little bro, / Well, let me tell you. / Sometimes you have to accept / the fact that mom doesn’t have a lot. / You can’t just get mad at her. / It’s hard enough on her that I am gone. / Life isn’t all about the best clothes / Sneakers or jewelry / Cause when you’re gone / you won’t have it any more. / Trust me, I know. / So the next time she says / I don’t have any money / Just bear with it. / And who knows / Maybe we’ll see each other / In the next life. / P.S. I’ll be waiting.”

These poems are only a tiny sample of the outstanding student writing. Yet many of my students — even the strongest ones — never before had thought of themselves as writers. Indeed, many students did not come to class with pens or pencils. Before beginning each project, I bought 100 pens, handing them out each day.  

I recall going up the back stairway at the school one morning, seeing two girls sitting on the steps, skipping class. One of them said, “If you’re coming to my class today, I’ll be there.”  

She really was saying that if stories and poetry were part of her class that day, she would attend. Ordinarily, in these failing schools where test scores are the center of the discourse, they also have become the focus of the pedagogy. There is no room for poetry, and often, there is no room for the individual students’ hearts and minds, either. So the students leave them at home, along with their pens and pencils. Imagine, if you will, America’s thousands of failing schools, each filled with poets and storytellers just waiting to be discovered.