They buried the bully at Blackwell Institute this year. I learned this fact during a recent visit to the K-8 school. In fact, students started their year bidding the bully adieu in a service officiated by a local pastor, with each child writing a memory of being bullied on a piece of paper. And there was not a child who did not have something to write about. The papers were then put in a coffin, and the bully was gone. Good for those children and good for that school whose warm, nurturing atmosphere strikes you the moment you walk through its door. I'm sure the "whole village" of the Blackwell community gained from that ceremony. Think Nain Rouge. Think the Nail Figure at the DIA, a ritualistic statue in which each nail represents an oath made public, a contract or a settlement of a dispute. Think community expressions of pride and resolve.
But think as well of the Detroit seven-year-old driven by bullying to hang himself last week. He could have used that kind of social safety net around him. He was on my mind as I looked out across a gym filled with second graders, eagerly assuming their "Poetry Posture" and getting ready to share the poems they have written in classes with InsideOut's Suzanne Scarfone and her peace-centered curriculum this year.
A student reading his poem at InsideOut's year-end poetry celebration.
(Photo credit: James Hawkins Sr.)
Though the children came up to the mic to read poems about seashells and Paul Laurence Dunbar, the sun and the moon, they know the pain of bullying. Sadly, they have written about it with great passion. It "makes me feel invisible," wrote one student earlier this spring. It's "a pain/that never goes away... an echo you can still hear," wrote another.
I wonder what echoed in that seven-year-old's mind.
I went to the Catherine C. Blackwell Institute for a year-end celebration of children's poetry. It was a beautiful bright spring day. Kindergarteners were outside playing a circle game that involved a hula-hoop. A group of older youngsters in their best dress walked proudly past me toward a school bus as I entered the building. I learned later that they were on their way to their Rites of Passage ceremony in a nearby church. Blackwell's Principal Patricia Hines greeted her children warmly and led them in a song of pride and joy in their school. To get to this school, this island of warmth on Detroit's east side, I passed through the kinds of heartrending blight so often associated with Detroit. The pain of the imagery sticks with you, but so does the strength of the voices of children who rise up each day from these beleaguered blocks.
Our children are strengthened by principals who invite the beauty of song and the arts into their schools; by organizations like InsideOut who work hard to encourage youth to "think broadly, create bravely and share their voices with the wider world" (our proud Mission Statement) or by organizations like the Coleman A. Young Foundation whose scholarship banquet earlier this month left me floating with hope for the future; and by all the arts, culture and youth development groups across Detroit, from the grassroots on up, that strive to make a better future for our young people.
I'm a bit biased but I believe Detroit got a grand taste last week of the hope and complexities I see in Detroit's young people. Hope practically leapt off the stage and danced down the aisles the evening of May 23rd at the Detroit Institute of Arts' Detroit Film Theatre as InsideOut hosted the second annual Get Versed -- a multi-arts youth showcase of music, dance, video and performance inspired by poetry in Detroit Public Schools classrooms.
An excited performer looks for his place in the Get Versed program.
(Photo credit: Elayne Gross Photography)
Backstage a class of fourth graders from Bennett Elementary School on Detroit's southwest side could barely contain themselves as they waited to perform their song "Life, Love and Hearts" -- the finale of this year's show. The DFT's historic elegance provided a wonderful setting for over 450 folks to enjoy and honor young people from 8 to 18, and we were all blown away by this peek at what is going on inside their hearts and minds. Karen Dybis put it beautifully in her Detroit Hub blog the next day when she wrote, "Bravo Detroit, for inspiring rather than destroying our children."
On her May 24 blog posting "And then there was this one kid..." Anna Clark, an IO writer-in-residence at Osborn and Southeastern High Schools, gets inside InsideOut and shares observations about her sharp, funny, perplexing and surprising students. Through Anna's story of ninth grader Cyrus, we learn that bullying takes a particular kind of twist and torment among older kids, but we also see the boy's spirited self, gaining a voice and surviving despite it all. Despite it all, Dybis notes, there is joy.
The Spitfires of Detroit International Academy of Young Women perform "Savoy Ballroomin'" inspired by the painting by Reginald Marsh at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
(Photo credit: Elayne Gross Photography)
The joy of Get Versed, the enthusiasm of a wonderfully diverse audience, the poise and incredible confidence from children, some of whom only months before had refused to speak in class at all, humbled and amazed me. Their courage is a testament to everyone who loves them and to InsideOut's poets and staff, who worked many long hours to make this event happen. It is also, I believe, a testament to poetry itself, and its power to help us heal.