By Linda Morel
Teachers & Writers Collaborative will turn 50 years old in fall 2017. To celebrate this milestone, we asked people who have been part of T&W’s work over the last five decades to tell their stories. T&W teaching artist Linda Morel writes about a talented and determined fifth-grade poet.
With long dark hair, Victoria Negrón was a quiet studious girl. By fifth grade, she’d been in writing workshops with me for three years. She responded to poetry and literature with an earnestness rare for a student her age. But something in Eloise Greenfield’s poem “African Dream” truly inspired her.
I went all the way to Africa
In a dream one night
“It doesn’t matter where your ancestors came from,” I told the class. “Everyone’s family started somewhere.” I asked students to close their eyes and travel to their country of origin. “Go back in time and think about the relatives you’d meet.”
“What if I don’t know about my ancestors?” asked a boy.
“Use your imagination,” I said. “You’ll be surprised how accurate you’ll be.”
But Victoria wasn’t listening. Her pencil was humming across the page.
I soared with the birds and landed in Africa.
To my surprise, I saw my great grandfather,
A little black boy in a long, tattered, stained shirt that was once white and fresh,
But now stank of manure.
The poem Victoria spun was vivid and bold, even raw. She was obsessed as she wrote, hardly lifting her eyes.
A little black boy with shackles on his ankles,
A little black boy who saw a dash of color added to his tattered shirt as he was whipped.
A little black boy who was kidnapped and placed on a ship,
Where other black boys and black girls were being transported to Puerto Rico.
The sound of whips hitting their backs, children prayed for the nightmare to end.
When Victoria read “The Flight to Africa, The Dream of Puerto Rico” to the class, the room was silent as her lip quivered. I wasn’t surprised she selected it as her anthology submission.
But I explained I was concerned about the references to violence. Fifteen years earlier, when I became a teaching artist with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, I was told to flag pieces with violence, to discuss their inclusion in anthologies.
I called Jade Triton, our director of operations, to see what she thought. “It’s fine with us,” she said. “But run it by the school.”
I emailed the poem to the principal and two assistant principals. When I didn’t hear anything for several days, I asked Victoria if she’d consider selecting another piece for the anthology—just in case.
I couldn’t bear to see the cloud of disappointment on her face. She must have read my mind.
“I want this poem in the anthology, just as I wrote it,” she said. “Please, don’t let them change my words. Or take any of them out.”
I was humbled by Victoria’s determination and self possession.
That afternoon, I bumped into one of the assistant principals in a hallway.
“When I saw your email, I couldn’t imagine what Victoria wrote,” she said.
“It was pretty awesome, wasn’t it?” I said.
“Yes, it’s wonderful, although disturbing.”
“But slavery was brutal, often violent,” I said. “Sadly, it’s part of American history.”
“That’s true,” she said.
“Listen, this is her family story,” I explained. “She desperately wants to tell it, to share it with a wider audience. She put a piece of her soul on that page.”
The following day, the principal gave permission for Victoria’s poem to be published in the anthology.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Victoria said when I gave her the news. During the anthology celebration, she was overjoyed to see her poem in print.
“You should feel so proud of yourself,” I said. “Not only for writing such a passionate poem, but for believing in yourself.”
Over the years, I’ve taught hundreds of students through Teachers & Writers Collaborative. All of them were ecstatic about publishing their essays, stories, and poems in an anthology. But Victoria will always stand out. Not just because she is a talented writer. But because she valued her work.
Photo (top) credit Policy Innovations
About the Author:
Linda Morel teaches poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction to students from first grade through twelfth. For four years, she ran writing workshops for retired firefighters through the New York City Fire Department as part of a post-9/11 outreach program. She received an MFA in creative writing from The New School University in 2001. Her personal essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Mrbellersneighborhood.com, and Newsday. Linda has led workshops for Teachers & Writers Collaborative since 1999.
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