As I prepare for the start of another school year, I find myself thinking back to a Saturday evening last spring that captured the promise of new discoveries, expanding horizons, and a brighter future that each new academic year brings. At Thistle Coffee House on 2nd Avenue, I sat captivated as seven of my Crockett High School students performed original poetry to a room of complete strangers.
A few weeks prior, I had given my English classes a creative writing assignment, and many students chose to write poems. After class one Friday, I invited the students who took this challenge to join me at Thistle for open mic night to read their work, if they felt so inclined.
I didn't actually expect them to show up on a Saturday night to hang out with their English teacher. But they did.
As I sat at Thistle that night with coffee in hand waiting the evening's performances to begin, I smiled as my students began trickling in a few at a time over the course of an hour. Looking around, it was obvious they were fascinated by this newly discovered scene. A young, diverse crowd of college-aged artists packed the venue, a stone's throw from Wayne State University.
One by one, my high-schoolers approached the emcee and added their names to the performance list. Their hands were shaking a little bit, but their faces exuded confidence. Admittedly, I was surprised that none of them reneged--especially since open mic audiences can be intimidating.
As the evening's performers cycled through, patrons continued on with their conversations and coffee orders, paying just enough attention to give a polite clap at the end of each act. Then Dante, the first of my seven brave students, made his way to the mic -- and the scene at Thistle stopped. The barista stopped steaming milk, the students stopped studying, and the couples paused their dates to turn and watch as each of my brave high schoolers took to the stage: Keisha, Dominick, Adrian, Joseph, Markita, Cambria.
The audience exploded after each student's performance. There was a resounding applause. People shook the kids' hands. It was an incredible sight to see.
After their performance, my students and I lingered for a bit to soak up the scene, but eventually everyone headed home -- except for Keisha. As we sat there, Keisha turned to me and said, "Mr. Stoeser, I didn't like Detroit -- and I wasn't even excited about college -- until tonight."
Indeed, this moment was as eye-opening for me as it was for Keisha. I realized that this open mic night experience offered my students a poetic example of the opportunities that might be possible for them through their education -- and it gave them confidence in what they're capable of achieving.
It also reaffirmed for me the critical importance of providing my students, the future leaders of our city and country, with an excellent education that pushes them to achieve their full potential and prepares them to succeed.
For too many students in Detroit, the academic and life pressures that come during high school, coupled with the additional challenges of poverty, lead nearly half to drop out before their high school graduation. If we come together as a community, though, and provide our kids with the support and opportunities they deserve and need, we can help to break this cycle.
As an educator, my job isn't just to teach students like Dante and Keisha how to find their voice. I also must show them how valuable the outcome can be when given a constructive forum for that voice -- because people want to hear what they have to say. As we start the new school year, the potential of Detroit's youth is vast despite the institutional road blocks around which they must maneuver. Each of us -- whether we're a community member, parent or educator -- can play a vital role in opening up avenues for our kids and paving a brighter road for our city's future.