The student poets at International High School at Union Square are from all over the world: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Italy, Senegal, Togo, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Yemen—to name just a few. Some arrived to the United States within the year and others more than a decade ago. Naturally, English is not a first language for any of them, which makes their poems all the more impressive. With a generous grant from the Kassel-Backer Foundation, Teachers & Writers Collaborative was gifted the opportunity to lead students in telling their stories; exploring their imaginations; and writing down their concerns, their secrets, their oddball thoughts, and their dreams.
There were many poems that inspired the students’ work, including “America” by Claude McKay, “To All My Friends” by May Yang (a.k.a. HAUNTIE), “one-bedroom solo” by Sheila Maldonado, “breaking away to the u.s.” by José B. González, “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong, “What My Grandmother Meant to Say Was” by Aja Monet, “Abuelito Who” by Sandra Cisneros, “Where I’m From” by Willie Perdomo, “Hunger” by Nicolás Guillén, and several others that I can’t even remember now. Point is, students read a lot, they discussed a lot, and they let the poems of others inspire them to write their own. Sometimes discussions were heated (“What My Grandmother Meant to Say Was” by Aja Monet did that) and other times they were quiet and compelled introspection (“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong got deep).
My visits this fall ranged from in-classroom work with collaborating teachers of grades 10, 11, and 12 on Tuesdays and Fridays to small-group, poetry-club work with students from the entire school who wanted to spend an hour each Friday writing and sharing new poems.
It feels almost impossible to relate the magic of International High School. Imagine a school where students’ poems are blown up on poster-size paper and hung throughout the school, where multiple languages are spoken and exchanged at the same time in a single classroom, where teachers are called by their first name, and where basic joy and decency and a thirst for learning dominate the energy in hallways, the feel of the place.
My sincere thanks to Principal Vadewatie Ramsuchit for her support of the program. Deep thanks to Evelyn Idoko, the Assistant Principal, and Amy Roberts, the 11th grade ELA teacher, for their constant help and guidance. This program would not have been successful without their engagement. Thanks to Shadrack Mbogho for his technical wizardry, especially with the posters. My thanks of course to Xia Lin, Mike Simpson, and Diana Han for welcoming me into their classrooms and for their generous collaboration. Finally, thanks to Steve Kerner, a school volunteer, for helping to usher the program in and for his belief in personal writing as a conduit to intellectual expansion. As ever, I’m grateful to Jordan Dann, the T&W Education Director, for her ideas, her genuine excitement, and her professional support, as well as to T&W’s Executive Director, Amy Swauger, for all that behind-the-scenes work she does!
To become a part of IHS is a genuine honor and I’m so happy I was able to do it again.
~ Sarah Dohrmann, Writer-in-Residence, Teachers & Writers Collaborative
Just a Little Bit of the Truth
by Uriel Solis, Grade 11
Well let me tell you that
for me coming to the U.S.
was the most cool and dangerous
thing I ever did
There will be dangers that will
challenge you to give your best
will show you what you are made of
You will see many different faces
looking to the same red little light
that looks close but is not
Remember your father, your mother,
they went through the same path and now is your turn,
is the time for you to show that you can
Do not trust anybody because at the
end it will be just God, you,
by Manda Bah, Grade 11
Just because I’m Muslim
Doesn’t mean I’m a
And doesn’t mean I’m from the Middle East
Just because I’m shy
Doesn’t mean I cannot advocate for myself
Doesn’t mean I can’t make my voice heard
And doesn’t mean I should be excluded from my surroundings
Just because I’m from Africa
Do you think I’m not smart?
Do you think I cannot make a change in my continent and let others dominate Africa as if it was colonization time?
My answer is, I’ll always try my best to make Africa look better than ever.
Where I’m From
by Carlen Belén Tineo, Grade 11
Where I’m come from is called the Dominican Republic,
Where you will notice that people are happy the 7 days of the week,
And people are ready to
You’ll notice there are many people, especially many kids,
Playing around, and many animals abandoned in the street, too.
Where I’m from, the temperature is always hot. You can even cook an egg here outside in the hot weather you can cook an egg.
Where I’m from, all the people call you Primo, Hermano or Sobrino,
Even if they are not your family or a person who’s known you for years.
Where I’m from, you see many beautiful houses but also many humble houses.
You will see a green forest, many trees, land and streets
Where I’m from, you need to be careful with your life because
Everyone in your neighborhood
Where I’m from is a town call Yamasa, in Yamasa is where
Everyone knows about your life except you.
Where I’m from, you’ll eat at 12 pm, but
And chicken the 7 days of the week, where all
We start to eat all together.
But nothing is fascinating as I say, because where
I’m from, there are many delinquencies, many poor people,
No good education, less opportunities to find a job,
Where the government stole from the people
And they don’t go to jail. But if a person stole to eat, the government will kill them.
This is my country. This is “Quisqueya la Bella”
Someday You Will Be Loved…
by Lisenny Florentino, Grade 11
You will look forward to your days, even the lonely ones.
You won’t be alone. You’ll have the world to yourself.
You will be able to do and don’t on your own.
You will receive what you give and live life in
You will love and you will hate.
You will figure it out.
You will rise up without a handful of anguish.
There will be no need to look behind.
Defend your rights, don’t ever stay behind.
You will find the love that you’re craving.
You will be beautifully loved, so perfectly imperfect that you will yet not believe.
Love him, love her, love them—you can do it all.
You will be unbothered by the selfish world.
You won’t remember the bad days, but you will live in the good ones.
You will embrace yourself as the woman you were born to be.
And with the light of the sun vanishing away,
You will leave memories,
You will encourage others,
You will do it all.
And most of all, you will be loved.
by Maria Gil, Grade 12
Well, I know you didn’t know
The struggle you were going
To face for not having documents.
Nobody played a video for you, so
You could see how your life was going
To change. People never tell you how
The United States really is, they only tell
You good things, but never the reality of
An undocumented person. Every day is gray
And dark because you don’t have loved ones
Nearby to motivate you to keep working hard.
Feeling lost and lonely. Things didn’t get clear because
Applying to jobs and going to interviews and being
Rejected for not having documents, living with an
Uncle that was hopeless, confronting your actual
Situation was stressful because you couldn’t afford
Yourself. Finally you will find a job through a friend,
And work and work and start trusting your boss and
Then he will take advantage as an employer, because
You aren’t legal to the country.
by Son Tran, Grade 12
I used to live on
But now I live on an
I used to think that life is easy, that I can stand on my own.
But now I see that my life is a mess, I have been in too many hard situations.
I used to think that school is a waste of time.
But now I see that without education, your life means nothing.
I used to not have the confidence to do something.
But now I have more confidence and more power.
by Christopher Renna, Grade 11
That I could have friends
looking out for me and I for them.
That being intelligent
helps me to stay on my path.
That having a lot of patience
will help me succeed in life.
To my family who made
sure I grew up making the right choices to have
a mature character.
To my friends who make
To my family who
decided to bring me to
I love you,
I look out for you,
I trust you.
Although sometimes I am invisible.
I love you,
I look out for you,
I trust you.