Sunday, March 11, 2001
Adversity and Verse
by Kevin Merida
His goal is
to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Words just dance in his head.
He stitches them together like a couturier, then wields them like
a lyrical samurai.
Is he limping,
walking on three legs,
slumped akimbo, eating mashed potatoes
and vanilla pudding for dessert?
is 14. When I met him at Hart Middle School in Southeast, he was
dressed in white jeans and a white T-shirt and wearing a black wool
glove on his left hand. A black wool FUBU cap was pulled down over
his forehead. If Larry is Hart's poet laureate, he certainly looked
to be so well known that they ask me to do readings and speak at
universities and pay me a whole lot of money," he said.
I love Larry's
confidence because I know so many kids who don't have any. The thing
is, there are Larry Robertsons all over the city -- all over America
-- in schools written off as too troubled to instill hope. We need
to erase some myths about public education -- namely, that there
are environments in which kids simply can't excel.
What Hart is
doing -- in a community that has struggled with economic disadvantages
and drugs -- is showing kids their possibilities. Give some credit
to Nancy Schwalb, who directs the Hart-based D.C. Creative Writing
Workshop. The school is developing a roster of future literary stars
-- kids like Delonte Williams, Roosevelt Jones, Pamula Twyman, Sitembile
and Yasmine Knatt, Monique Covington and Amani Al-Fatah, a precocious
13-year-old who's written 108 pages of a novel she's been working
on since fourth grade. Titled "Joey's New Neighborhood,"
it's about a rich black family that lives in a 320-room mansion
but hasn't forgotten the folks it left behind.
interest is in writing books," said Amani. "I like to
write stuff with feelings, emotion."
If George Bush
wants to do something worthwhile in his spare time, he should have
his limo roll up to Sixth Street and Mississippi Avenue SE so he
can give some presidential oomph to Hart's writing program. He could
talk about how Hart may be the only inner-city middle school in
the country with a literary magazine. Then he could walk around
the neighborhood, where I once lived, and shake some hands, demystify
Congress Heights for all those who watch the nightly news and wonder
if anything good ever goes on there. "We want to have a program
here that is such a shining example that parents will be camping
outside to get into Hart," says Schwalb, whose goal is to establish
the school as a citywide writing magnet.
You can see
what the writing program has done for Larry Robertson. In sixth
grade, kids picked on him because he was different, outspoken, independent.
He would say things that didn't go over well with his peers: Basketball
is stupid; black males who play sports stereotype themselves. He
would change the radio station if a song came on that was degrading
He got into fights and got suspended a lot. Depressed, he started
writing "to avoid doing something horrible." And he got
better and better at it. He won writing awards, such as the Parkmont
Poetry Festival contest, a citywide competition for public and private
schools. For two years straight, he made the team representing D.C.
in the National Teen Poetry Slam. And a funny thing happened: As
his poetry took off, respect among his peers grew, and he stopped
getting picked on, and he stopped getting into fights.
And how is Hart's
poet laureate treated now? "Oh, standing ovations, applause
and numerous positive comments that last for months," Larry
said in deadpan fashion. "Nothing big."
Hardly a school
assembly goes by that Larry isn't asked to do a reading.
It was like
diving into your world
without a life preserver,
but I never died.
Cuz I have the average life span of an
Heart of branches with minor thorns,
not mature enough to pierce me into love.
That's why I was there wondering,
when will bliss be blunder?
so that misery will have its company
are from "Folly," which I watched Larry write in 20 minutes,
all 10 verses, as an exercise in Schwalb's after-school writing
Larry has become
The Man at Hart, and not by bouncing a ball or pimp-walking through
the halls trying to play gangsta. If only there were more programs
in public schools designed to help kids find their niche, then we'd
have more Larry Robertsons and Amani Al-Fatahs.
What I worry
about are the kids whose talents never get nurtured, who get left
behind simply because they haven't been shown their options, kids
who don't aspire to win the Nobel Prize for Literature because no
one has told them that it's possible.
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
PG. W07; SIDE STREETS
LENGTH: 798 WORDS