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Tue June 17, 2014
Plant your soul: The poetry of a Detroit elementary school
Whitney Walker has had a lot of jobs in her life. But she was never content until she landed at her current gig as the office manager at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a K-4 charter on the east side of Detroit. Walker wears many hats at the school. She’s an administrator, a nurse, a poet. What follows is a poem by Walker, mixed with her ruminations on the school.
I’m the first person you see when you enter the school. This is the closest that I’ve ever come to feeling like this is where I’m supposed to be. I can literally go through my resume, or just my life, and say these are the things, in order, that led me right here to this school, to this position with these people, with this team, with these children.
I’ve been a bartender, and a bar manager. I’ve been an optician. I’ve been a zookeeper. I’ve bred tree frogs. I’ve started my own jewelry line. It’s all been to try to find something that feels right. When you’re looking for that thing, it’s very lonely and frightening, especially when you have a child because there’s food to buy and rent to pay and that’s hard when you’re bouncing around like I bounced around.
It starts with a hole
the kind you hear about in movies
or the 10 o’clock news
or maybe from the neighbor of a cousin
who your mother says knows a little too much.
The first time you inch of your own, you’ll break a few nails
By the 16th you’re hands will be leather cracked and swollen.
The taste of forgotten hymn brick heavy on your tongue.
But The funny thing about ladders
is how often they come wrapped in skin
They don’t question your mud
They never tell you to leave your shoes on the porch
One will slingshot his grin up to you before he learns your name
Another will slip her tiny hand into you clenched fist, following blindly
And while they are not yours by blood
You will become tooth and claw if keeps the dirt out of their fingernails just a little while longer
A lot of our students are going through a lot of bad things and there's not always a solve. We can't fix everything. We want to so badly, so badly. I've cried so many nights about how helpless and frustrating it is to only be able to protect them and fight for them here, and not be able to go through their life with them and and knock on doors and say, "I'm sorry, why didn't he get the job?" Like, I want to do that for all of them.
Because it’s a rough world. And they know it, but they don’t know it yet. They haven’t had those knocks yet. I remember the first time I was riding in a car with a male friend of mine. And we were just riding down 7 mile and the police pulled us over. We were both snatched out of the car, handcuffed, on the ground. The middle of Seven Mile. Because someone matching his description, a day before, had gone in this direction. So we’re roughed up. His nose is bleeding. I’m terrified. And then at the end of it all, they just uncuffed us and said, all right. You guys have a good one. Like it was nothing.
And I think about our students going through that and I just think to myself, how do we prepare them for this world that looks at them like they’re threats for no reason? Just for their skin color? Like their skin color is a weapon inherently?
was no accident
led you to this place
every slip a correction
Every failure a “See you soon”
This brand of fight was being perfected
before the ones who needed it most
were even born to stake claim
Your Grandmother died
before ever seeing you become a doctor.
She will never know how many night you fall asleep wanting to tell her
that you became so much more
By your thirty first crawl, you’ll understand that
are just spaces
for the grace in your scars
to show out.
Plant your soul in the next one
and watch your entire self shine