Authors: Tony Danza
a few days after the poetry contest, a tenth grader who’s not in my class wanders into my room before school and starts strolling along the wall where I’ve hung my students’ poetry posters. This boy is slight and pale, with dark buzzed hair and shadows where he’ll soon have sideburns. A widow’s peak shapes his face into a heart. Some kids have trouble written all over them, but not this one. He’s quiet as he takes in the biographies of poets on the wall and the images that illustrate their poems. I sit at my desk and pretend not to be watching.
Although I don’t know his name, I know this boy has most of his classes near my room. First semester, when I was walking down the hall with my cameras in tow, he and I would often nod to each other. One day as I passed, he extended his hand to shake mine. Always looking to be friendly, I reached out, and just as I did, he pulled his hand away, stuck his thumb up, and got me. He laughed. Since then we’ve been on fist-bump terms.
Finally he turns to me. “Had a poetry contest, huh?”
I glance up, low-key. “Yeah.”
Silence. He continues his perusing. “You know, I write poetry.”
“No kidding.” I give him my attention. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“And what do you write about?”
“Mostly about my dad. He was killed in a car accident.”
The sound of kids in the hall gets louder. I want to get up and go to this boy, but I stay put. “Alex, I’m so sorry. I lost my dad, too. I was older than you, but I know how you feel.”
He shrugs, as if it’s no big deal, and I let a few seconds pass. Then I ask, “Do you write about anything else?”
His face goes blank. “Now I write about my mother.”
I’m afraid to ask. “What do you write about her?”
“She was stabbed to death.”
Well, that catapults me out of my chair. I’m across the room in two steps. Alex accepts my bear hug. I can’t tell if he welcomes it, or tolerates it, but he doesn’t push me away. After a minute I stand back. My heart is hammering and I’m fighting tears. What was it that teacher in SLC warned me about at the beginning of the year? “Adoption fantasy,” he called it.
I screw up my courage. “Who do you live with now?”
“Me and my sister live in a foster home with my stepuncle.”
takes me a while to figure out. It’s clear that this boy’s life is beyond anything I can imagine. I ask him if he’d let me read some of his writing.
He looks at his feet. “Sure.”
The next day Alex brings me an overstuffed binder of his work. Not only is he prolific but the poems are good. He writes about bullying and sorrow and teen suicide and helplessness. One long poem, “I’m an Oxymoron,” speaks to his own inner conflicts and really shakes me up, but it’s hopeful as well, which is what kills me about this boy. The last lines read:
I’m the bright part of life even though it’s dark
And at last I can be myself
I have the ability to give up
The choice of wealth
I have the advantage to win
I’m the sickness to my health
Overwhelmed with thoughts they start to talk
Worried about myself so I forget about this world and everything in it
I’m an oxymoron of death
I’m life without breath
I’m that dead person living
That lost soul I struggle to find
I’m nothing just words that were spoken
Alex wants to compete in poetry slams, and I urge him to go for it. We discuss the confidence you need to be a good performer, and I show him how to improve his enunciation and stage presence. Pretty soon Alex is a regular in the half-sandwich club.
On Earth Day he turns up in my room again before school starts. This time he clutches a poem he’s written about the environment. “You think Ms. DeNaples would let me recite it over the school intercom?” he asks me.
Fat chance is what I think. Ms. DeNaples is as jealous with that intercom as if she’d won it at the Oscars. But I don’t tell Alex that. After all, she did let me use it to promote the teachers’ talent show. “Can’t hurt to ask!” I say, and down to the office we go.
Ms. DeNaples seems to have a special on good humor going for Earth Day. Against all odds, she not only accepts Alex’s offer but
to make the morning announcements. This is unprecedented.
Alex clears his throat, and I remind him to stand straight and breathe. He takes the mike in hand. “Good morning,” he announces gravely. “This is Alex, and here are today’s announcements.”
The office staff is mesmerized. I imagine the entire school staring at the loudspeakers in disbelief. Ms. DeNaples yielded the intercom to a
grader, no less? Who is this kid?
Finally, after the announcements of the day’s events, Alex says, “Today is Earth Day. This is a poem I’ve written in honor of the earth:
“If mother nature had a favorite color
it would be deep sea blue like Poseidon’s bones
Or maybe earth brown
on days when the sun gives her enough power so she can breathe again
Beauty has always been one garbage can short of perfection
On most days my peers pay no attention to mother nature
Throw away beauty with no thought
I can only ask the people to treat the earth like their dreams
See what beauty really is and create a rainbow
Recycle the things that don’t matter and finally make a difference.”
A cheer erupts in the office after Alex signs off. Teachers congratulate and praise him. They ask to make copies of the poem so they can read it to their classes. Best of all for Alex, as we leave the office a girl he likes walks up and gives him a hug. “Alex, that was great!” she says, turning her big brown brights on him. The moment is sweet.
From then on Alex is effectively the poet laureate of Northeast.
He goes on to compete in the Philly Youth Poetry contest and earns a trip with the team to Los Angeles to compete against street poets from all around the country. He writes poetry to encourage Philadelphians to clean up their city as part of UnLitter Us, a local public service campaign against litter. Alex’s poetry lifts him like a life preserver.
Whenever I hear politicians try to justify cutting the arts in public education, I think of this extraordinary boy. Although he can do a backflip off the stage to the auditorium floor, he’s not a jock, or a math or science whiz, nor is he a candidate for class president or yearbook editor. But with his poetry, he’s a rock star. It’s what gets him to—and through—school.
LAS, THE POETRY
contest has no such rosy afterglow for my other students. As the weather starts to warm up and the pace of testing quickens, they grumble and wiggle and snicker and yawn more than ever. I’m excited about Ms. Harper Lee’s novel
To Kill a Mockingbird
. I’ve reread it and loved it and can’t wait to turn the kids on to it. Funny, the kids don’t quite see it that way. After we’ve been working our way through the book for a week, David Cohn not so gently reminds me that I’m supposed to
engage the students
All right. It’s time for the big guns, technology-wise. I decide to hook the projector up to my computer and plug in my SlingPlayer. That way I can screen for my students anything I can watch on TV. But what’s the best media material to enhance
To Kill a Mockingbird
? I’m coming up short until about two in the morning, when I give up trying to sleep and turn the TV on to a rerun of the movie
, which I later find out was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s bestseller
Queen Bees and the Wannabes
, about adolescent girls. In one scene, the mean girls are introducing the new girl to the different
cliques in the school cafeteria. Preppy blonds sit at one table, smart Asians at another. The jocks have their section, the nerds are there, the arty kids in the corner—just like every school cafeteria. Just like Northeast.
suggests a lesson on the class structure of our school—which my students can compare to the structure of Maycomb, Alabama, in
. I download the movie on iTunes and the next morning in class we screen the cafeteria scene. Then I break the students into groups to work out the parallels between characters and groups in the book, the movie, and the school. They make diagrams and illustrations, and finally present their findings to the class. There’s some disagreement about who belongs to which clique in the stories and in life, but the lesson works because it connects to their own lives. And it’s fun.
Games, I remind myself, are another great way to
the students. We’ve already done versions of bingo, a.k.a. Danzo;
and Pictionary in this class. Now I find a YouTube video of myself appearing in a 1985 episode of
. My students, who have never heard of the game show, will watch the video to see how it’s played. Then, before our next class, I’ll set up two rows of chairs at the front of the room to face the class. Three kids equipped with homemade paper X and O signs will sit in the first row of chairs, three more will stand behind them, and another three will stand on the back row of chairs. These nine positions are the squares, and the kids who occupy them will have to answer game questions that come from
To Kill a Mockingbird
When my students see the video, they make predictably embarrassing comments.
Look how young you are, Mr. Danza! Hey, you look like that guy from
Jersey Shore. I stick it out just long enough for them to get the game. “Now it’s your turn,” I warn them. “First nine volunteers get to be in the squares. I’ll ask the questions, and the rest of
you break into two teams to decide whether the person in the square is giving you a true or false answer. It works like Tic-Tac-Toe. First team to win a whole row of squares wins the round.”
After the nine squares are filled, I divide the remaining students into two teams of eight—the Xs and the Os. The teams immediately start razzing each other, and the kids in the squares get into the act as well. The required preparation time is putting me at a disadvantage, so to get them started I hand the players in the squares the bluff answers I’ve written for the first round. When answering a question, the square players can either bluff or answer the question for real, if they know the answer. Their goal is to try to fool the teams.
We begin with team X, which chooses Nakiya in a middle square to answer the question “In what time and place is the novel set?” Nicky doesn’t even take a breath before stating categorically, “The novel is set in the west during the Depression.” A few team members blurt out “True,” but then Gwen objects. “It’s the south, not the west. False!”
Nakiya smiles and puts on her paper sign, which hangs like a bib, giving the team their X. The team goes wild, and she eggs them on by clapping. I shush them, and the Os pick Monte. Perfect, I think. Monte’s poker face and deadpan delivery will give nothing away.
“On what writer did Harper Lee base the character of Dill?”
Monte pauses, motionless, and when he answers, he doesn’t speak so much as he articulates: “Ernest Hemingway.” The Os buy it because Monte is never wrong.
The correct answer is Truman Capote. So the Os lose Monte’s square to the Xs, and Monte almost actually smiles. The review is working, although I didn’t realize when I planned this that I’d feel a stab of failure over every question they miss. I mean, really—
We’re in the final round when, out of the corner of my eye, I notice
David Cohn leave the room. A good sign. He must think it’s going pretty well. Then, out of the corner of my other eye, I notice Matt skirting the room in Paige’s direction. Nothing new there. Matt’s antsy as usual. As long as he doesn’t disrupt the class, I let him be. But this time his mouth is also moving, and Paige objects. “Why don’t you go back to your seat and shut up,” she says to him.
On a good day there’s no love lost between these two, except that I suspect there may, in fact, be some attraction, which only intensifies the friction, since he is white and she is black, and Matt hasn’t been the same since those boys jumped him early in the year. Now he’s seething. “You ain’t the teacher.” Matt closes in on Paige, jutting his chin.
“Oh yeah?” Paige’s voice rises. “I’ll teach you something.” Next thing I know she’s out of her seat and both their fists are clenched. I vault to the back of the room to get between them. Paige is screaming at the top of her lungs, “You ain’t so tough, and I’m not one of your little ass-kissing girls.”