I got a text from a Chicago friend yesterday: Didn’t you used to work at Harper High School? She’d heard the latest edition of This American Life (TAL) on National Public Radio, the first of a two-part broadcast about the school. Last year, 29 current and former Harper students were shot, eight of them fatally. Because these deaths weren’t the work of a lone gunman, and because these victims were poor and black, they didn’t make national headlines. Violence is business as usual at Harper, but this is the first time the nation has been called on to bear witness (normally broadcast on Sundays, this edition of TAL was aired on Friday to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Chicago).
I was a literacy consultant to Harper High School for three years. My first assignment was to support a newly hired English teacher in her first teaching job. It was October, and she had been hired to replace three other teachers who had been hired and quit in succession. Heather had just graduated from Brown University, and nothing had prepared her to teach in a school like Harper. If you heard the broadcast, you understand that nothing could.
I can’t say I was much help, being nearly as green a literacy consultant as Heather was a teacher. Heather was extremely bright, with great ideas. But we were two naive white women trying to teach students who put their lives at risk simply by walking to school. We were completely out of our depth.
Heather’s fourth period English class was a particular challenge. It was a freshman English class. Every student in the class had failed Freshman English the year before. All but two of the fourteen students were male, and nearly all had a known gang affiliation (if you heard the broadcast, you understand why). Rather than try to re-teach the same material, we decided to tailor our assignments to the students’ interests. We invited them to form groups and write plays, which we promised would be given a public reading and shared with the principal.
The students loved the assignment. They labored over plot, argued over whether the dialogue sounded natural, struggled, as all writers do, with endings. While most of the plays didn’t exceed six pages, they were the longest and strongest pieces many these students had ever written all semester.
But when it came time to present the plays, Heather and I got cold feet. Students had followed the first rule of writers: they had written about what they knew. The plays were about drug-dealing, gang warfare, and revenge shooting. They were saturated in violence. While Heather and I had felt it was important to permit students to write about what was important to them, we now worried that sharing these plays with an audience outside of our classroom might incriminate the students and put Heather’s job in jeopardy.
We broke the news to the students that there would be no reading, and we apologized. The students were disappointed, but didn’t try to change our minds. I wondered if it was because they were used to adults breaking promises to them. I was terribly sad.
It didn’t feel right to go on with the lesson we had planned. I reached into my bag and found a book I was reading: Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence edited by Daniel J. Wideman and Rohan Preston. We gathered around a long table and I announced that we would be reading “Magic” by Tyehimba Jess. The poem’s starting point is basketball star Magic Johnson’s announcement of his HIV positive status, but the piece takes on even more complex and troubling issues. I handed the book to Chris, the student on my right, intending for the book to be passed around and read aloud.
Chris started reading, but stopped when he got to the line, “what did that nigga god do to make him so bad?” Who wrote this, the students wanted to know. An African American poet, living right here in Chicago, I said. Why does it look like that? Chris asked, leaning to the right. I think it’s in italics because it’s a quote, I answer. The poet is reporting what someone else said. Does God have a color?, one student asked, and the students debated the point, deciding, eventually, no.
Chris refused to give up the book. He continued to read with the rest of the students leaning in, listening. There were frequent pauses for clarification. What is genocide. What does “syphilitic tuskegee graves” mean. What are “smallpox blankets.” Heather and I took uncomfortable turns explaining.
It took the entire class period to get through the two-page poem. When the bell rang, Chris was still holding the book. “A black man wrote that?” he asked me, softly.
I gave him the book. The following year, Heather and I wrote a grant to bring Tyehimba Jess, along with Susan Wooldridge and the Funky Wordsmiths, to Harper to help students write their own poems. This time there was a reading, with families invited. Students got up and read their own poems, or poems they loved. One student played the saxophone. There was punch and cookies and flowers. That year, six of the ten winners of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry contest were Harper High School students. They attended a ceremony at which Gwendolyn Brooks herself shook their hands and handed them a check.
I am not saying that a single poem magically changed the world. Chris failed freshman English for the second time, despite his momentary literary interest. I worked with him one-on-one two days a week the following year, but it was hard to keep him focused since his best friend had been shot and killed in September. He taught me more than I ever taught him. Despite my pleading, he never completed his final and failed freshman English for the third time. Eventually he graduated, after which time I lost touch with him.
Heather moved to New York and began teaching in an alternative school in Brooklyn. Tyehimba Jess wrote an award-winning book and is now a professor in a writing program on the East Coast. I’m in a doctoral program in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, life at Harper continues to be a struggle, despite teachers and staff who care and students who want more out of life than dodging bullets. When I was assigned there, I felt that most days the best I could do was to make it slightly easier for a teacher or a student to get through the day. After three years, I didn’t even feel I could do that.
I know that violence is not the only story that could be told about Harper. But I know it continues to be an inevitable part of life in Englewood and in other communities in Chicago and across the country. After thirteen years, I’d had enough trying to band-aid a hopeless situation. But when I heard the social worker on the TAL broadcast weeping as she explained why she wouldn’t be staying late to help police the Homecoming Dance after another neighborhood shooting, I wept, too. Call it survivor’s guilt.