For the past few weeks I've been teaching a poetry workshop every Monday morning at Morningside High in Inglewood, part of a program sponsored by PEN, the writer's and human rights organization. I am a member of PEN and until recently, was on its board. I've taught this "PEN in the Classroom" several times over the years at South Central campuses like Locke and Jefferson; a couple of years ago I did one at Morningside because it was conveniently close to my house, and because the campus -- and Inglewood itself-- shares the same struggles and problems that beset many schools in inner-city L.A. that are almost exclusively black and Latino. In fact, I've always called Inglewood the South Central of South Bay, geographically and otherwise.
The workshops have not been going terribly well. Granted, 8 a.m. on Monday is not a time when students are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but these ninth-graders are about as resistant a group as I've come across. Some are quietly resistant, almost sullen, a few are overtly resistant, but overall the whole idea of poetry and free expression hasn't caught collective fire in the way it has in workshops past. A spark here and there, but that's been it.
This past Monday I brought a topic to class I was sure would fire everybody up, at least for a day: Trayvon Martin. The ongoing controversy about the murdered 17-year-old in Florida touched on so many themes that could be fodder for poetry: place, race, justice, identity, humanity, the general oppression of being young and misunderstood. Surely these kids would have something to say; one of the students, a black boy, had recently fractured his wrist after running from the police, and was in a cast.
But almost from the moment I said Trayvon Martin's name, I felt a kind of withdrawal in the room. Faces went blank or indifferent. A few were angry, but not for the reasons I hoped.
"Why do we have to talk about that?" said one student, looking surly. "It's no big deal. It happens all the time." Let's change the subject, said another. The few students willing to talk about Trayvon analyzed what happened rather clinically, recalling the circumstances about the shooting but showing no feeling about the matter at all. This is what struck me hardest, that this group of teens who live closest to the whole phenomena of racial profiling have normalized it to the point where it makes zero impact. For them it seemed useless to talk about, even more useless to write about. Extracting poetry or deeper meaning from the incident was off the table completely. "Let's write about flowers," suggested one student, only half-sarcastically. I think.
I'm not saying the students feel nothing about Trayvon and his ilk, but what they do feel is in an emotional place not readily accessible, or it wasn't on Monday. Nurturing freedom of expression is one of PEN's goals and the primary goal of the classroom workshops, and that's all well and good. But without freedom of feeling, expression is just a ten-letter word.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.