A group of my students, undeterred by opposition, held an art slam at a local coffee shop one friday night. I walked in not knowing what to expect. one of them brought his iPad – thinking not many would show. It was the day school got out – the first taste of Christmas freedom was still fresh on the lips of these high schoolers. I bought a coffee and took a seat – anxious to see what the night held.
Art hung on a kiosk and a guitar sat waiting on a nearby bench.
I could feel my insides churning for them. I wanted it to be a success. I prayed against disappointment – they experienced enough already. But I knew regardless, they tasted the thrill of revolutionary thinking – what it means to let loose with your imagination and use it to change those around you.
To me, they already succeeded.
Slowly friends and peers started to show. A piece of paper is placed on a table for kids to sign up to sing or speak poetry or play an instrument…the paper doesn’t last long. Within thirty minutes the students have allowed the night to take on a life of its own. The mic is never without a companion for very long.
Inspired by a lone note found in Washington DC at the Vietnam Memorial, a student strums his guitar in a way reminiscent of Johnny Cash. His story-tune reveals a creativity most students didn’t know about – all ask for an encore later in the evening. His mom walked up as close as possible to capture the moment on film. I could see the pride in her eyes as she turned and caught my gaze.
“You need to get him to share his other songs with you” she says. I make a mental note to ask him as soon as we return from Christmas break.
And then there was the other student – shy and timid the majority of the evening. This was news to me. In class, he’s bright and lively – first to engage in discussion or join in a sarcastic diatribe against society. That Friday he was most comfortable behind the camera. He shot safely from behind the lens – sometimes in the corner, sitting tight in one of the cushioned chairs. I looked up when I heard his voice come from the mic. He mentioned something about Patsy Cline, about being gentle with his singing voice. I wrinkled my brow in anticipation and felt my heart jump when he belted his first line.
The song ended and a shy grin played on his lips when the crowd erupted with cheers. My face echoed his – I believe it was in that moment I knew something special was taking place.
My students didn’t have to do this. Originally, the evening was birthed out of a project I gave them to meet the needs of a community through beauty – proving Dostoevsky correct. When the project was sidelined, these students kept going. I don’t think either of us anticipated standing room only. I know I wasn’t expecting to see kids fight over the mic to read a poem or share a song. Worlds were colliding before my eyes. Beatnik meet b-boy. Spoken word poet meet opera singer. Jock meet artist.
All met acceptance. Open arms. Complete support.
I remember smiling at one point in the evening when i watched our son Devonte and his best friend Jesse make themselves at home amongst my students.
This is how a community is born I thought…as I watched them collaborate and create art in front of everyone else.
I didn’t need confirmation about my project. I didn’t need administration to give me the nod of approval – I knew in my bones this was something I wanted to share with my kids. The hidden curriculum we so often breathe to life in our classrooms often takes on flesh and blood if we let it.
But, if i’m honest, my heart soared when an administrator who stopped by whispered in my ear that the district was proud of my kids.
When i passed this information on to the students, they cheered.
Many students asked if these nights would become a monthly event. My students said they wanted to try. They stared opposition in the face and threw up their middle finger like only teenagers can – with a bit of idealism sprinkled on top of a lot of hope. I’m sure revolutionaries of the past know the emotions flooding through these kids as they saw an idea brought to fruition despite setbacks and naysayers. And the best part? I had nothing to do with the planning. I didn’t even give them the idea.
All i did was ask a simple question: how can beauty save the world? My kids responded with gusto. They knew they may not change the world, but their hope was to change at least one person. In doing that, they would change the world of that one person – and the repercussions would be exponential.
As far as i’m concerned, they succeeded.
For those few hours, we experienced what it’s like to witness beauty saving the world – one spoken word at a time.
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