This essay appeared in the Detroit Free Press as a Guest Commentary/Op-Ed
Call me the Man with the Magic Pencil. This pencil of mine that I’m using right now to write down these words, I’ve had this pencil of mine since the third grade — this stubby stick of wood with hardly no lead on it, no eraser, worn thin like a chicken bone that some dog’s chewed all the meat off of. It’s mine. I carry it with me wherever I go.
I can see things inside this pencil that nobody else can see. Its magic is something I freely share with my students. If I don’t share its magic with the world, the magic inside my pencil will surely dry up.
I tell this to my students before I go around the room tapping on their pencils twice and inviting them to repeat after me, “I believe … in the power … and the magic … of my magic pencil.”
I tell them about the 12-legged purple octopus riding a unicycle down Ferry Street, about the bird with one wing, about the egg that the moon placed underneath my pillow last night.
I tell them stories that I see when I lift my magic pencil up to my eye and see what only I can see.
I’ve been going into the public schools of Detroit with this pencil for the past 22 years as a writer-in-residence with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes tell them that I flip word-burgers at a diner called the Moon Palace, but eventually, if they stick around for more than a few minutes, I’ll tell them that I teach poetry to inner city kids. I like that term “inner city.” It makes me think of the phrase “inner circle,” and to me there’s something sacred and almost hidden about the picture that those words in my mind create.
When I say that I “teach poetry,” what I really mean to say is I create with these students a space in the world where words on the page are considered sacred, a place where students come to believe there are words inside each of their pencils that are waiting to be written, heard, listened to. Their words, in short, I hope to teach them — no matter if they are real or imagined — matter to the world.
These students are fish that are hungry for such bait. I wish you could see with me the looks on their faces when they lift up their own pencils and dive inside. But what we mostly hear are those stories about how these fish can’t swim.
I am here to tell you otherwise. I’ve seen some of these fish walk across the river. I’ve seen some of these fish sprout wings and fly across the sky.
How do you measure such flight? How do you gauge the intelligence of a song?
In the eyes of many in our data-driven world, these are students who, according to the measures of standardized test scores, fall short of being grade-level proficient. These are students who, when you ask them to write down a list of things they’ve seen and heard, will sometimes tell you things that you wish they did not have to know.
I have lost
to a bullet
in the head.
These are students who, when you tell them that the page is a mirror, this is what they see:
is a book
has its own
I was small.
– Alex Garcia
These are students who aren’t afraid to share their stories of personal struggle and pain:
for my mother who
did drugs, stole things,
and is in jail right now
in Ypsilanti. I cry
for my father who was
hardly ever around.
I cry for the corner house
where my uncle lives
where a man was shot
on the 4th of July.
I cry for my grandmother
who shouldn’t have
to take care of me
but she does. I cry
for my friend who lost
her grandmother. I cry
every time I am alone.
I cry to cover up
the anger and rage
inside of me, the sadness
and emptiness I feel.
I try to cover up
I bottle everything up
inside. But sooner
or later they have to come out
like right now
in this poem.
– Tiffany Stockman
These are also students who dare to dream and bring insights such as this to the page:
For things are not what you see.
They are what you make them be.
– Cameron McKinney
Call Me Ghost
I am from a place where the old
dog cries. I am from the place where
the sun doesn’t shine. The place I’m
from is where you wake to the smell
of old Delray’s soul. I am from a place
where people call me ghost. I am
from a place where nobody goes.
“Such old souls,” a friend recently said to me, about these students, after hearing them read their poems at a recent event at the Detroit Film Theater. And yes, it is the soul; it is the souls of these children, that I believe we, as a culture, are failing to see, failing to teach to.
How do we measure feeling and the type of imaginative intelligence that it takes to shape the emotional topography inside us into such song? Can we “score” a piece of writing that reaches out to us straight from a child’s heart? Is the boy who writes this poem in the wake of losing his mother to a drunken driver merely proficient?
Inside My Heart
Inside my heart
there is a house
where my mom
lives with angels
singing in a voice
that sounds like
the wind blowing
through my hair.
Such singing needs not only to be listened to; it needs to be heard. It needs to be revered. Like the magic in this magic pencil of mine, if I don’t share poems like these with the wider world, I’m afraid that the poems will dry up, that the fish will have no river to swim in, no ears to sing to. I will not let this happen. This river is a good river. If you walk out into it, this river, it will hold you up. This river is a poem. Listen to it flow.