Unless you have teens in your family or work with them in some capacity, it's easy to lose touch with what being a young person is like. But as the true cliche goes, the youth are the future, and if one cares about the future, without some direct experience of young people, the future becomes even more abstract. Most television programming tells us next to nothing about adolescent reality today, being based on marketing values and stereotypes. News media tell us mostly about worst-case episodes and trends. The result is that too many adults become basically clueless about what teens face in life today.
This is one reason I try to go to the local Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam every year. Last week's event, held in San Francisco, was part of the 16th annual "Grand Slam Finals," in which 13 young poets, winnowed down from over a hundred, compete in front of a large crowd to be one of five going to the national championship event in July. The competition is open to any youth 13-19 years old in the greater Bay Area, and as last evening's MC Josh Healy put it, "Teachers might encourage a promising poet to compete, and the poet might first think 'well, at least it might be a way to get out of class' -- but then wind up here in front of thousands." Poets reading their work are graded by a star panel of judges and the tallied votes determine who moves forward to the next round.
And by the time they get to the Grand Slam, the quality of the poets and their performances can be astonishing. I'm reluctant to list names here as they were all superb in their own right; they came from all over the Bay Area, and represented the diversity of our area. But the event is not "light entertainment" -- it can be a heavy dose of reality. The vivid descriptions of abuse, poverty, addiction, violence, death and more can be harrowing. Some of the teens are preternaturally mature; as one said, "My childhood was pickpocketed from me." Poets address their absent or abusive parents, their lost siblings, friends, ancestors and even future children. Fears of the future in an economically challenging time were voiced. More than one girl lamented prevailing standards of beauty that render them pathologically insecure. Stories of prison and murder are hopefully fictional but come off as all too real. "America you made me the monster that I am," concluded one such searing story. Another concluded, after a heartrending litany of his and the world's challenges, "I don't care anymore because there is just too much to care about."
More than once I heard people sitting near me crying. More often, though, the event is celebratory, with constant boisterous encouragement for every young poet. And to be sure, it's not all intense, as there are less heavy tales of teen crushes, yearning, romance and hopes. At the intermission, I was pondering how incredible these young folks' courage and skills have already become at such young ages -- neither I nor anybody I knew as a kid could have or would have been able to perform as they do. A journalist stuck a microphone at me and asked, "What do you think of the poets so far?" and I found myself blurting, "I hardly know what to think or say -- on one level their poems make me so sad, as some of them have been yanked out of childhood or never even had one. But what they make out of that with their words can be so inspiring. The first time I attended, I showed up reluctantly, and did not know what to expect. But now I try to come back here every year."
As one of the MCs opined last night, if every politician and CEO came to the Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam, they'd get a much different and more real take on life today, and in the future. If only.
Youth Speaks does much valuable work in schools and beyond, and can always use help (and they have a "matching grant" offer right now that makes any support even more timely).
The big national final event is in July. You can sign up on the Youth Speaks site and/or Facebook for notices; and hope to see you there. I'm confident you won't regret it or forget it.