Consider who is involved in a case of infant mortality. The mother, the father, the child, the doctor, the sibling. Write from that person’s point of view.
This prompt of a persona poem style was given by Cordelia Eddy of Lake Erie Ink, a youth writing program, to my class at Campus International School. Ninth-grader Alanis became a regretful mother and wrote, “There aren’t enough sorrys.” Isadora, also a ninth-grader, became an infant who’d died talking to her mother: “I know you loved me to death, but you loved me to death.” With this lesson, a topic that was only seen through statistics became personal.
That said, the numbers are clear. Ohio has the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the United States. And while the overall number of babies dying before their first birthday has declined, the racial disparity is widening. After the first 9 months of 2017, 66 black babies and 14 white babies died in Cuyahoga County. The situation is particularly acute in Glenville.
I know this is disturbing, but when I saw students were being invited by the Our Healthy Community’s Protect Our Babies campaign to write poems in response to the crisis, I was irritated. I wanted to know why they weren’t invited into the research and policy parts of the conversation. So often, students are asked to be involved in serious issues as a kind of decoration. They are the entertainment and are dismissed when the real work begins. But before the winners were announced, I knew I’d been wrong.
“I felt starting with the artists and poets would be a way to accomplish our goal more intimately and effectively,” says Silas Buchanan of the Our Healthy Community. “I felt this approach would not only allow us to engage on a more personal basis, but would also encourage the community to work together in spreading the word on a deeper level.”
Babies are always an attractive topic to discuss with teenagers, and the contest sponsors did a fine job putting together nine short webisodes that address different aspects of the crisis. The surest sign the topic had their attention was that the students were quiet. I showed one or two of the short films each day and asked them to keep a running record of notes, phrases, details and reactions to what they were learning. After each film (and not all students saw all of them), there might be a few clarifying questions. But mostly, students just wrote.
When they finally began putting notes together in the form of a poem, I was stunned both by the depth of feeling and the number of participants. According to Buchanan, the Collaborative had a similar reaction to all of the entries: “The artists submitted some amazing work that touched many of us in ways that we didn’t expect, and the poets were absolutely amazing.”
Students who had written very little during the rest of the year produced a torrent of words. One student wrote two poems. I went over to visit another student who seemed to be stuck. When I asked her if I could do anything to help get her going, she said, “I wish I’d known about this before.”
The next step was videoing the students. I didn’t mentioned this step because I feared it would paralyze some of the writers. I thought they might avoid writing so they wouldn’t have to present their poems on camera. Some were apprehensive, but another interesting development emerged. The students created the role of “Encourager.” We had a student filming and a student presenting, and the third would be off camera to help the presenters with their nerves. Jaleel Pegues of Cleveland’s Distinguished Gentlemen of the Spoken Word volunteered to guide students through their presentations.
As a teacher, I’m supposed to model what I asked my students to do. Writing the poem wasn’t too hard for me, especially since I watched each of the webisodes several times. I convinced my son to film me so I could present my work to the class and practice how to submit the student videos. When I received confirmation that I’d submitted properly, I was asked whether I wanted to be included in the Adult Spoken Word category. I encouraged my students to be risk-takers; I figured I should be one, too.
The most important thing I learned by having the students enter the contest was just how wrong I’d been about initial reaction to the campaign. The depth of feeling and knowledge the students conveyed in their writing and presentations, the compassion they quickly felt for the families in the webisodes and for their peers who were nervous about their presentations, the sparks of interest that more than a few students showed about continuing to investigate this issue – these are all aspects of an essential educational and life experience.
Voting for this contest is open until May 2. Please take a minute to listen to, rate and comment on a few poems. The Awards Ceremony is at 1 p.m. May 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Buchanan said the ceremony will be “all about celebrating the participants, awarding the winners and honoring all who helped make this event successful.” It will have live performances, viewings of the art, a drum circle, guest speaker, refreshments and more activities. With any luck, you’ll get to see some of my students celebrated.
Most importantly, though, they are now aware of the crisis. It’s my hope that they’re inspired to learn more and become a part of the effort to improve the situation in Cleveland. “This will be an ongoing fight until infant mortality is no longer an issue in Cuyahoga County,” says Buchanan. As we’ve seen with the recent March for Our Lives movement, we have quite a generation of leaders emerging. As adults, it’s our job to be the “Encouragers.”