Sacred Ground in the Classroom

I am sure this is the beginning of a poem. Everything in my life seems to be. When my predominantly black class did not know who Maya Angelou was this week, it broke my heart, but not enough for me to not use it as a teachable moment. I wore my Maya Angelou shirt the next day. I just happened to have it packed for this week long trip. It reads:

“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.” Maya Angelou.

In another class a girl said, “Oh, you mean that old lady that looks like Nelson Mandela?” They giggled and laughed. I was not laughing. Ignorance is the saddest thing on the planet. I almost lost it. My soul lurched anger on top of hurt. They live in the same state as this monumental woman and do not know her.

When I stopped my lesson and said, “some things are sacred.” When they said, “what is sacred?” Something inside me broke again. In response, I wrote the word sacred on the board. I gave definitions, metaphors and stories about our elders and ancestors. Certain people’s legacies consist of holy ground. I left the town, my poetry residency driving on MLK, Jr Blvd. Literally, but I always take things metaphorically. In my life everything is a sign.

This moment was symbolic of the state of things. I love these children, because they are my children/ our children. We’ve got to open the doors for them. It is their history, that they need in a way that will demonstrate what is sacred ground. If you live your life like nothing is sacred. What is to be honored? When people ask me about the need for Black History Month, I know that this is coming from a place benign ignorance or some weird glitch of denial, because they have not walked in the places that I have stepped. Or some some educated black folks think just because they have read every book on the subject there is no need. To brush this need off is not productive or excusable. I know they say this because they do not walk in the world with their eyes open. They don’t see the look of starvation in children’s eyes to their anemic imaginations from not knowing their history.

The need is more now than ever to help students make these connections. I worked with all students this week: white, latino, asian and black and they all need to make these connections. They are all my children/ our children.

I left not completely down-trodden, because there were many bright lights in those classes and I saw the fire of hope looking back at me. The wick needs to be lit and stay lit. Many of them used their pens connected to their hearts this week. I am heartened by their flames. I saw the flame flicker this week. Their stories were hard stories. They have seen much in their young lives. I know poetry is not the sum total answer, but for me it is a beginning. If they can gain this tool of articulation of reflecting on the deepest part of themselves, they can ride on this vehicle anywhere. I did/do.

I know some dismiss poetry to an extracurricular activity or an aside, not as important as science or math, but I believe it is essential to being a whole person. It builds compassion. This is how I celebrate King’s Day. Maybe you say it is not enough, but it is what I have to give and I believe in it. I am a teaching artist and I am committed to this post of spreading poetry and the arts. It builds strength of character. We need our young people to be viable citizens. We need them to know more than the block they live on or the next pair of $150.00 sneakers that are getting ready to hit. They all want to be fresh and fly, but poetry tells them that there is more. They are more. Poetry is the only right action that I know and it points them in the direction of King’s Dream if they pay attention. Poetry is sacred. I spread it. I’m a fire starter. This is how I stay lit. Washington, NC