For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their combines and keep watch,
It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced.
—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
April is National Poetry Month. This year, thousands of students incarcerated in juvenile detention and correctional centers around the country are participating in a nationwide poetry initiative, “Words Unlocked,” sponsored by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.
We should support the study of poetry in all of our nation’s schools, especially those located behind bars.
Teens who are locked up connect with poetry in an especially powerful way. It enables them to express themselves, to reveal emotions they so often don’t want to talk about. When they struggle with language and find their voices, vivid, evocative stories emerge, as in this poem, “All Alone,” written by a former student at the Maya Angelou Academy, the school inside Washington, D.C.’s youth correctional facility:
I wake up every morning and see the world smiling,
I look outside and see the clouds crying in pain,
I hear short heartbeats coming out of the rain,
I witness the sun desperately asking for a change,
and the football on the ground hoping for a game,
as the cars scream the ground cracks up,
the force of negativity is like the impact of a truck.
I know how it feels
to be a cigarette butt,
to get put down and never picked up.
As I sit back and watch the world make love
the sun, moon, and stars are praying for silence,
the ocean, trees, and mountains wish we were one,
but by the power of the gun,
more love-making will come.
Poetry helps school and learning become what they should be—relevant, engaging, empowering—for all students. For too many young people who are locked up in youth detention and correctional settings, school isn’t any of these.
Last year, a colleague and I visited more than 30 youth facilities and sat in on almost 150 classes. Only 22 percent of the classes we observed had any focus or objective. In the other 78 percent, students came in and just did (or did not do) some work, usually consisting of photocopied packets of materials. We observed actual instruction in only 55 percent of the classes we visited. In the other 45 percent, teachers were merely present. The students, most of whom were several grade levels behind academically, were left to complete worksheets or simply slog through outdated textbooks (often being told to complete the odd- or even-numbered questions on end-of-chapter exams in order to earn credit).
A really strong poetry unit can be part of the solution to the dry, stilted, dumbed-down curricula we witnessed in so many classrooms we visited. Students will respond to lessons on similes and metaphors and will wrestle with word choice and parallel structure when these concepts are presented in context. The “Words Unlocked” curriculum does just that. It includes works that make learning relevant (Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”), engaging (Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”), and just plain beautiful (Pablo Neruda’s “Oda al Traje”).
Studying poetry can also be transformational. In his memoir, “A Question of Freedom,” R. Dwayne Betts recalls how Dudley Randall’s anthology, “The Black Poets,” which someone threw into his cell, changed his life: “There was something within the pages of that tiny poetry anthology that moved me.” Poetry can give incarcerated students hope; it can help them gain the courage they need to tackle the challenges in their lives with honesty, purpose, and conviction.
In “Almost Home,” a student wrote of the dilemma he knew he had to confront as he prepared to be released:
Now that I’m almost home,
Will I do good or wrong?
Would I hang with my old friends, smoking and toting chrome,
Or finish school and go on to college where I belong?
Now I’m almost home, it’s up to me
To be what I want to be
Another student, all too aware of his tenuous future, wrote:
Let’s keep it 100 for a minute and do the numbers in your head:
Out of us youth, 80% are coming back, 10% are going out the feds,
5% are gonna be free and 5% are gonna be dead
Weeks after writing the poem, he escaped from custody during a supervised community visit, and then, shockingly, turned himself in a few hours later at the urging of his mother and friends. Six months after earning his release, he went on to college—determined to be part of the free 5 percent.
R. Dwayne Betts writes of poems that “drove me to anger and yet left a settledness I hadn't known before.” I hope the poetry incarcerated students produce this April will generate that same response in those who read it. I hope it will anger people who care about justice and who believe in redemption. And I hope it will inspire a settled determination to challenge the largest juvenile prison system in the world—ours—and tear it down, one awful link after another.