04/03/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Poetry and Basketball Defeat a Scar


By Zenobya Clarke

When I was three, I fell off a couch and hit my head on the edge of a coffee table. My face was busted open; I needed twenty-six stitches. For years I was self-conscious about my scar. It not only cut through my face but controlled my view of myself as I often shied away from people.

Two passions rescued me from limiting myself-- basketball and poetry. They seem worlds apart yet I eventually united them as a force in my battle against the scar. I have been writing poetry for as long as I can remember and playing basketball before I learned to ride a bike at seven. The scar never mattered more than my skills as a player on the court, which forced me to work harder at the game. The art and the sport were my temporary escapes.
My words were my own and I spent hours engraving them onto the pages of my notebook. Poetry was my hiding place. I kept my writing secret, until I was no longer comfortable existing apart from the world. Somehow I found the strength in middle school to take a leap and sign up for a poetry reading at my church.

My heart pounding and hands cold, I sat waiting on the edge of the hard wooden pew. The church rang with applause; I was next. Immediately, the scar produced fear that surrounded me, holding me back. In my mind, everyone was there to see that mark rather than listen to my poetry. The butterflies scraped their wings along the walls of my belly. I walked up on the stage and kept my back to the crowd, scared to turn around. The butterflies flew fiercer. Reaching the podium, I slowly turned around and raised my eyes to face what felt like millions of eyes staring back. I was exposed. I looked back down at my paper that was now wrinkled from nervous hands. There was no turning back. I took one more look at the crowd and then took a deep breath. I began to read and entered a world where my words encased me, holding me close then flowing from my mouth:

Boom Boom,
The pounding of the ball and my heart are one
The glides of my feet move like a pen across a page from a woman's angry heartless goodbye from spouse she once loved
My eyes stare across an empty court
My ears no longer hear the sound of a roaring crowd
Then like dance
Like a painting
Like poetry
I twist and glide across an empty court to score a basketball
And it all comes back to
The roaring crowd
The empty court
All come back and the world I was in becomes a memory
But no worries because I know it will be back soon

I left the podium and escaped the staring eyes--proud with a sense of fearlessness bursting through me. Those same poetic words that I used to hide myself, now became a door to find my individualism in such a public way. It built my self-confidence.

This new part of me felt larger than my insecurities and shined even more as basketball grew into more of a gateway of my expression. On the court I played center; I did not shy away from the world. In fact, I became a leader on the court in a moment that resembled my first poetry reading. In my freshman year, my team was losing a game. Suddenly my confidence as a poet gave me a burst of unbelievable passion. Without realizing, I started yelling out to my teammates, "Lets pull ourselves together!" That comment revived the team's dynamic flow. We played stronger. The moment echoed the part of me that I carried away from the church and far beyond the awareness of the scar.

I became involved without fears in several community service projects--some sponsored by my local chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc., an organization of African American families. I even travelled to South Africa to teach poetry to children through the Artworks for Youth Program when I was 15. I led a class of six boys in a dusty broken down classroom in Joe Slovo Township. I pushed them to tell the stories of their lives-- the good and the bad. We all shared a connection. Our poetry was our therapy, linking our words together. We laughed, cried, sang, and even danced. On some days, we were really silly. Indeed I left the summer feeling that fears over that little scar were even sillier.

Zenobya Clarke is a 2013 graduate of Packer Collegiate Institute and is now a Freshman at Spelman College.