Watch Us Rise(7)

“I hope you brought your fresh minds and open hearts this afternoon,” Ms. Hawkins says, smiling wide. “Let’s get started, shall we? I am eager to continue getting to know you, so let’s begin class today with the six-word memoir introduction.” Ms. Hawkins has spent the last couple of weeks on identity—we wrote an ars poetica, which is kind of like a vision for how we want to live our lives, an I Come From poem, and then wrote a poem about a food that represents us. Mine was about veggie patties from the Concourse Jamaican Bakery—they represent me because they’re spicy, unexpected, and completely addictive. I thought it was hilarious, but no one laughed when I read it out loud.

“Get creative—show me something the rest of us don’t normally see,” Ms. Hawkins says. “And for an example, I’ll share my six-word memoir first: poetry is my heart and mind. There, see how easy it is?”

“That’s really original,” I say, under my breath but loud enough for the freshmen to hear me. Neither of them laughs.

“Your turn,” Ms. Hawkins says. “Show me who you really are!”

I look around again to see if I can catch anyone’s eyes, but they’re already writing. I look at the blank page in front of me. I can’t think of anything of write. I try out a bunch: Hearts and minds are my poetry. Um, no, that’s pretty much what I just made fun of Ms. Hawkins for writing. I am a big jerk sometimes. No, too obvious. From New York, likes to write. Yuck.

“Okay, time is up,” Ms. Hawkins says as her small timer buzzes. “Who wants to share first?”

The two freshmen shoot their arms into the air, as if they’ve been waiting their whole lives for this moment. I roll my eyes, but then catch myself.

“Puerto Rico lullabies me to sleep,” one of the freshmen, whose name is Maria, says first.

“Lovely, beautiful,” Ms. Hawkins says. “It tells me something about where your heart is and shows who you are. I can’t wait to hear more. Next?”

The class goes one after the other: Always dreaming of my next meal, we all laugh. High rise honey, NYC all day. Illusion is a concept I adore. I have no idea what that one even means. Born and raised in Washington Heights, and Boogie down Bronx—my first love. Both solid. I look down at mine one more time.

“I’ll go,” Jacob says. “For this assignment, I chose to do a haiku instead.” He looks around the room. I really roll my eyes this time. “A haiku,” he continues, “is a poem composed of three lines, each line containing a different number of syllables, five-seven-five to be exact. Generally, haiku are focused on the small changes in nature. For my example, I chose to do it my way. Here’s mine:

Whirr of the subway

The doors open to my life

A train jets away”

“Oh, wow. These are just wonderful,” Ms. Hawkins says, standing up and moving to her whiteboard. “Just wonderful and unique. I love them, and I know you will love our standout poets that we’re going to study this year.”

I raise my hand. “Uh, Ms. Hawkins, I didn’t go yet.”

“Oh my goodness, Chelsea, I am so sorry I forgot you. And you are like an open book, so I know yours will reveal something.” She smiles in my direction.

“Um, so my six-word memoir is: Rages against the myth of beauty.” I look up at Ms. Hawkins, ready for her to compliment my line.

“That is a good start, Chelsea, and I want to push you even more to take more risks in your writing, and think about the details, the specifics. You are a veteran in this group, so keep that in mind.”

“But that is specific,” I say, not meaning to start an argument, but annoyed that mine was the only one that got a critique, “and it says something about what I want to push against in the world. I mean, I think that’s the whole point of Poets for Peace and Justice, right? That’s why we’re all here.”

“I thought the club was called Peaceful Poets,” Maria says, looking at her friend Amaya.

“It doesn’t really make a difference what it’s called,” Jacob says. “It’s the poetry club . . .”

“What? No, uh, it matters, and it’s called Poets for Peace and Justice because we want to use our art to disrupt society and push against what’s happening in the world,” I say.

“No, that’s what you want. The only reason we came up with a name is because you pushed for it so much. No one except you calls it that anyway.”

I look up at Ms. Hawkins, who looks uncomfortable and is writing on the dry-erase board. “Ladies and gentlemen, can we please focus on the writing activity for today. No fighting in the poetry club.” She has written “William Carlos Williams” and “Emily Dickinson” on the board.

I sigh—loudly.

“Is there an issue, Chelsea?”

“There’s always an issue with Chelsea,” Sonya Pierce says, leaning toward Jacob, her coconspirator.

“No, there’s no issue,” I say, glaring at Sonya. “It’s just that I thought we could look at some more modern poets this year and think about how they are writing and how we can use those poems as models . . .” No one says anything, so I keep going. “I was thinking about the Nuyorican Poets—I mean, we should definitely take a field trip downtown because we could do an open mic night or the Friday night slam, and learn about Miguel Pi?ero and Miguel Algarín, or we could study the Black Arts Movement . . .”

Renée Watson's Books