STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Students find the words to say the things they think they cannot say

courtesy of The Diatribe
Students gather for a poetry slam organized by The Diatribe

"Can you read right now at least please?"

Fable is harassing one of his students.

"Can you at least read in front of us?" he asks.

The student, Jocelyn, already said she doesn’t want to read her poem. She hardly ever speaks at all in this class.

But Fable, whose given name is Marcel Price, will not let up.

"I won't ask you for anything ever again," he says earnestly.

Fable is one of the teachers of this class, one out of four members of a poetry collective known as The Diatribe. The other poets are Rachel Gleason, G Foster II and Shawn Moore. They all pile on Jocelyn, the only student here today who hasn’t yet read a poem out loud.

The four poets plead, each in turn.





It's a Monday afternoon. These four poets have been coming to this classroom, inside an alternative high school at Kelloggsville Public Schools in Wyoming for most of this year.

The class they teach isn’t for credit, and students aren’t there to learn the elements of poetry. They are not assigned sonnets, and they are not expected to learn iambic pentameter. This class is about something totally different.

I'm about to see what that really means.

After all the begging and pleading, Jocelyn finally digs a folded piece of white notebook paper out of her back pack. She has long dark hair, dyed blue at the ends, and she’s wearing a black Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt.

Everyone else in the room turns their heads. They promised not to look as she reads her poem.

"Do I really have to?" she asks. "All right." 

She takes a deep breath. 

She begins. 

Then she gets to the part about the razor blades. 

"I know what it's like to cut so deep, until ..." 

She stops. 

"... until you can't feel anymore." 

She stops again.

"You got it," says someone from across the room.

Jocelyn collects herself. The paper trembles in her hand as she continues. 

When she finishes, every single person in the room is blown away.

They clap. 

"Thank you so much. Thank you so much," Fable says. "I'm so proud of you." 

"She let us have it with that poem, man."

Jocelyn is crying now, and she leaves the room to collect herself.

Shawn Moore and G Foster are trying to collect themselves too.

"That’s what it’s about right there," Moore says. "I’ve never heard her talk that much in one sitting. Ever."

"I don’t think I’ve heard 12 words from her," Foster says. "And we’ve been here 15 weeks."

"She let us have it with that poem, man," Moore says.

These poets are not traditional teachers, not even close. This class started a few years ago. It was originally supposed to be just one visit – a kind of career day with local poets. They were such a hit with students, it turned into a weekly thing.

Their weekly lessons aren’t about haikus or villanelles. They’re about inner demons and social justice. One week focused on rape culture. Another week, they asked students to read the comments at the bottom of a news story, and write a poem about it.

Members of the Diatribe still travel around to other schools, giving assemblies to large groups of students.

And Fable says the approach there is the same as it always is – to push students and help them say the things they think they cannot say.

"It's people not being taught how to cope with their stressors ... It's every school you go to. I mean, it doesn't matter if it's inner city, outer city, at risk, not at risk. It doesn't matter what it is. It's all the kids."

"You really get people to talk about their demons though," Fable says. "In a room of 600, you’re going to have 50 to 100 kids talking about self-harm … You’re going to have 20 to 50 kids that are talking about, ‘Oh, I’m in the closet.’ You’re going to have half these kids talking about they’re contemplating suicide. You’re going to have half these kids struggling with their parents … and abuse … And that’s not the school system. Like, it’s people not being taught how to cope with their stressors … It’s every school you go to. I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s inner city, outer city, at risk, not at risk. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s all the kids."

Jocelyn’s story doesn’t end with a poem about razor blades.

When she comes back in the room, Fable gives her a huge hug – lifts her off the ground.

"Rock star!" Moore shouts.

He tells her that he went through the same things. That Shawn Moore went through the same thing. Then they read their own, deeply personal, powerful poems to the students.

Afterward, I go to talk to Jocelyn.

"What do you think about these knuckleheads?” I ask her about the Diatribe.  

“They’re pretty neat,” she says. “They’re really cool people.”

I ask her about school. She says, basically, it’s fine. But this is the only class where she gets to do any kind of art.

“I definitely want to get into art more,” she says. “Like writing and drawing.”

"I just want to be something people remember."

I ask if she plans to go to college.

“I’m definitely going to college,” she says.

“Like go to a college to do art stuff?”  

“Maybe not,” she says. “I want to be a doctor.”


“I don’t know,” she says. “I just want to be something people remember.”

Fable says the students who are here in an alternative high school are not here because they are dumb. They are here because someone gave up on them, and they gave up on their education.

Poetry will not help Jocelyn become a doctor. But it has already helped her be something people remember.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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