Walking across East 42 Street on a glorious spring morning, 10 Middle School students* chatted easily with each other as they made their way to Bryant Park. The only hint of the amazing events to come was a single piece of white paper each carried in her hand. Waving slightly in the breeze, the papers contained poems the students had written for Poem in Your Pocket Day, the citywide poetry-sharing occasion that took place on April 26 in the park’s outdoor Reading Room.
Chapin students in Classes 4-7 were invited to submit an entry to the annual poetry day, which many did. Over several weeks, the Humanities team reviewed and selected the poems anonymously by grade so poets in all Middle School classes were represented. “We chose poems we thought were powerful,” explained Humanities teacher Lynette Engel, adding that she looked for original language and universal themes. Ms. Engel accompanied the students on the field trip along with fellow Humanities teachers Jenet Dibble and Toula Pavlides.
Arriving at the park’s northwest corner, festooned with colorful banners and surrounded by planters of bright tulips, the students settled into folding chairs to await their turns at the microphone. Joining them were seven students from the East Harlem School at Exodus House (EHS), an independent middle school with which Chapin enjoys an informal partnership nurtured by Ms. Engel, whose mother has long been part of the EHS community.
“Read slowly, read loudly, read with a lot of expression,” Ms. Dibble reminded the students, who had carefully practiced for this moment. Chapin’s was the first group of readers, followed by the EHS poets. Lined up alongside the small stage, everyone waited patiently, holding their papers firmly in their hands. Each appeared calm and confident and maybe a bit nervous.
“This is so exciting!” exclaimed Ms. Engel. By setting her cellphone to live-stream Chapin’s readings, the entire Middle School was able to witness the event live on a large screen during a poetry-focused Middle School News in the Assembly Room.
After an inspiring introduction by 16-year-old William Lohier, the current New York City Youth Poet Laureate, Chapin student Giuliana strode to the stage, took a deep breath and read her poem. Next came Ai Vy, Gladys, Grace, Eleonore, Anna, Gabriela, Nicole, Arreyana and Whitney.
As each student read, her voice rang out strong and brave into the warm air. Woven throughout the exquisite language were provocative messages around identity, difference, beauty and the poignancy of life. One poem declared:
“And how absurd it is to have pink girls and blue boys
to have sections bitter with boundaries,
and how absurd it is for women to be assaulted
to have to fight for equality, for voices to be heard.”
“Enough with this race against race, it’s a disgrace.
I think it’s clear, not another year.
People chatter and chatter about black lives matter,
But the chattering doesn’t count,
we need to pounce together as one people equal…”
A third poem stated:
“The Earth has four different layers but the crust is the part
where everything happens. Where our lives are given, spared,
and taken, where we get put down and we rise up again.
Several offered strikingly evocative imagery, including this excerpt:
like a candle being blown out by a cold wind,
the light withdraws,
Slipping back through the window.
Everything that was alive and luminous
Just seconds ago
sinks back into shadows.”
The poems, as unique as the individuals who wrote them, succeeded together in seizing the imaginations of the audiences, both in Bryant Park, where students, teachers, parents, and a smattering of curious park-goers listened attentively, and back at Chapin, where the live-streamed readings contributed to an especially memorable celebration of poetry.
“The students were, indeed, transfixed but not because of the technology,” commented Kelly Hammond, Head of the Middle School Humanities Department. “Really, it was the power of the poetry and the delivery that had them hanging on every word.” Added History teacher Lisa Moy, “I agree it was an incredible and inspiring day that showed two truths. First, the students rose to the occasion by using their melodic and powerful voices to remind us and to inspire us about possibilities. Next, poetry itself is a profound art that captures the essence of what it means to be a human being.”
The readings done, the students packed up their poems and walked back along the sunny sidewalk to the waiting school bus. Their moments in the spotlight may have been brief, but the impact of their words – and the courage with which they used their extraordinary voices – will most certainly endure.
*Giuliana Cardinale, Class 5; Grace Fisher, Class 4; Nicole Hall, Class 5; Anna Huang, Class 7; Arreyana Khaliq, Class 4; Gabriela Manuel, Class 6; Eleonore Marcano, Class 6; Whitney Pellegrino, Class 7; Gladys Pierre, Class 7; Ai Vy Shulman, Class 6.
Browse photos from the event below: