Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Velt: Chapter 2, Seven Years Removed

Having mapped out the syllabus for a 12-week curriculum of slam poetry and theatre improv, the after-school program was prompted to begin. Michael, the principal of Roosevelt H.S., sat at his desk in the usual position of back turned and staring at his computer screen like an oracle. “I think we can start this as soon as next week?” I said with a slight question at the end. The entire operation had been tedious at best. Although Michael and Hassan had been brimming with enthusiasm to calibrate a theatre program- a drama program- some kind of program for the students to have an artistic outlet, their understanding of the syllabus seemed to be non-existent. I had engaged with Michael less than a handful of times and he was already entrusting me to teach a 12-week after-school extracurricular for $3000. I mean, the guy barely knew me, had never seen me perform a lick of theatre let alone slam poetry and was handing over the keys to a 90/90/90 high school after-hours to teach kids how to… speak for themselves.

Problem: Again, this is a fng 90/90/90 school. Reference The Velt Chapter 1 if you have no clue what 90/90/90 is, and also you shouldn’t be reading Chapter Deux if you haven’t read Chapter Uno- shame on you. However, taking you know what I’m talking about- a 90/90/90 school is in absolute need of an after-school organized activity to assert students to speaking for themselves in an artistic or formal manner. The opportunities were limitless in this position; we’d study Bao Phi, Augusto Boal, Neruda, Shane Hawley, Shakespeare, KRS-ONE- we’d cover it all. This is unprecedented. This wouldn’t be Hot Cheetohs & Takis, we’d turn it to Politics & Hegemony! I was excited, couldn’t wait to get down to business.

First thing was first, in any form of introducing a new class or event to a populous, time to print posters. I put together an 11x17 bill to promote the after-school’s presence and plan of action. Pause- what’s the name of the thing- I mean, what’re we calling said after-school activity? Politics & Hip-Hop- Slam Poetry 101- Fight The Power, Write For Hours? Christ, I hadn’t even thought of this. “So, I’m sending out the FYI to the faculty, what’re we calling this?” Michael said bluntly with his back turned at his computer. “Umm, Hip-Hop Theater” I said. It was ballsy, not over academic, but a bit much- almost an oxymoron. Hip-hop is theater, and theater isn’t necessarily hip-hop… jargon aside, it stuck. The kids had to know that hip-hop was involved, that they’re voice would be given a stage to say what they felt or had been feeling for some time and never had a proper setting to voice it. In the latter, they had to know that we’d be dealing with scenes that they’d be curating the scripts for and playing out reflections of their lives in and outside Roosevelt H.S.

A majority non-white high school, on the brink of getting shut down in a city that had all but pulled the plug on its life feed, was putting me in charge of a hip-hop theatre program… this is serious shit, man. There are no arbitrary moves made in this building, you can damn near see the tension wafting from the walls of Roosevelt H.S… from the outside.

After plastering over a dozen posters around the school, my time had come. Michael gave me the option of using the writing center’s room or going with an abandoned band room. The band room was a sad sight while empty. Outside of it sat a poster of Tapanga from Boy Meets World promoting kids to not drink and drive. Michael played a good Fix-It Felix for the while I was there, but at first sight of a poster from the early 90’s sitting on a door… it gave me reason to think twice. Was Roosevelt actually invested in seeing their students succeed, or was it just a farce with the name “Wellstone” tagged to its title outside the building? Something was amiss. Something didn’t sit with me well, like a rollercoaster I had already been locked into, my only options were to defy logic and make a bloody jump off the ride… or travel the predestined rails it had already set in place. Couldn’t back down at the beginning of a job. It would be a balancing act of trusting Michael and implementing  a space for students to talk about sociopolitical subject matter through art.

First day on the job- I avoided the dungeon/cavern of broken dreams from the 90’s (the old band room) and opted for the cushy writing center. Plus, the first day wouldn’t necessitate a lot of space, just room to sit and chat. The goal was to get a feel for the subject matter the students wanted to talk about, the direction they wanted to take their writing, and then integrate that into the hip-hop theater’s plan of action. I sat on the stiff red couch which looked more welcoming than it actually was. Felt like I had sat on a brick bench once I hit the damn thing. Ok, it’ll get better. Can’t wait to meet the students and see what ideas and words they wanna throw forth to paper.

Five minutes pass… No one in attendance yet. I grabbed some papers from my bag to go over the syllabus a 2nd, 3rd  - enter the first student… and another. Sidenote: I’m not going to go into any detail of anything discussed between the students and I during the after-school program. It’s arbitrary to the point of the story, and plus... that shit is private. Working with youth has been one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever come across in my lifetime, and now, engaging with primarily youth of color at a city high school to create poetry was beyond ideal.

The hurdle now, was getting kids to actually show up to the program… consistently. If we were to put on a performance at the end of the curriculum, how would we make it happen with spotty attendance? It was going to take a team, and after two weeks (4 classes) passed, it wasn’t working. At most, I’d had 4 different students show to Hip-Hop Theater and 2 students show at a time. The subjects and work we created for those two weeks were absolutely amazing. We’d covered sociology inside and out of Roosevelt, hierarchy within the household, and street politics.

The idea and space was creating a dim glow- some kind of light nonetheless, and I wouldn’t stop at it there. Wrapping the 4th class, I made an impromptu entrance to Roosevelt the next day to visit with Michael. Always busy with something or what seemed absolutely nothing, Michael welcomed me to his office. “The turnout for the hip-hop theater after-school program is pretty dismal, and I want to make a go of garnering more interest in the program.” I confidently declared. Brimming with energy as usual, Michael replied “Yeah- sounds great!”

“I’d like to go into a few classrooms and perform some slam poetry to give the kids an idea of what it is they could be a part of after-school”, I proposed. Michael again enthusiastically agreed. I was determined to turn the general student populous of Roosevelt High School’s attention toward their potential to speak through art for just a second, if even. I hadn’t performed serious slam poetry for over 7 years. Honestly, nothing scares me more than being on stage with no beat and my own words. It’s possibly the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt; to get up in front of a crowd of strangers and speak with the promise that my word is worth everyone’s time. I also, fucking love it- love being at the precipice of a moment to orchestrate a skill and instrument I’ve been passionate about since birth.

I couldn’t just roll up to each English class and rock a poem I’d written years ago about some opinion from some political or personal issue. I’d have to reach even the most checked out kid in the class room. Beyond 7 years of not performing serious slam poetry, it’d been even longer since I’d written a new poem. So, what better time to start than now- write a piece revolving around the issues Michael had communicated to me at the beginning of this whole thing; 90/90/90, lack of enthusiasm enrolling to a school that was your 2nd or 3rd choice, being the most diverse school in the state, student violence, etc. The list could rant if it wanted to, but I’d have to be direct. Make a straight shot to the heart of Roosevelt’s current circumstance sitting as an dim star on the edge of South Minneapolis. Question was, how would the students respond to the poem?

What occurred next was nothing short of an ugly success. (To be cont.)