Plant your soul: The poetry of a Detroit elementary school

Jun 17, 2014

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.

Whitney & Zoe from andrea claire maio on Vimeo.

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

your ruin

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.


Whitney Syphex Walker.
Credit Andrea Claire Maio

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

Every ditch

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