Highly Gifted/Highly At-Risk

Can poetry really help a class of "really smart gangbangers"?

Highly gifted/highly at-risk. That’s how the kids—seventh and eighth graders at El Sereno, a school on the east side of Los Angeles where I’d been hired to lead poetry workshops for the next ten weeks—were described to me. In other words: really smart gangbangers. These kids were bright enough to have tested into the Gifted and Talented Education Program, or to have been recruited into it, but they weren’t in my workshop because they were model students. They had also been designated as “at-risk,” and I knew what that meant. Of all the useless euphemisms concocted by education bureaucrats, this may be one of the few that’s apt: in danger, in peril, under threat, vulnerable, exposed to harm.

It was 1992. Gang violence in L.A. was at an all-time high—drive-by shootings, turf wars, drug-fueled terror in the streets—and El Sereno was at the heart of it. Along with Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights, El Sereno was part of the LAPD’s notorious Hollenbeck Division, and friends who knew the city even better than I did told me I was going into a war zone.

• • •

My first day at El Sereno, the students filed in noisily and filled the rows of desks while I spread out my books and papers on the table in the front of the room. When I looked up, I saw thirty-five twelve- and thirteen-year-olds at various stages of puberty, most of them still baby-faced. Of course, even a preteen girl can look “hard,” given enough black eyeliner and attitude, and some of the boys slouched in their chairs in an attempt, I thought, to look menacing or bored. But it was all bravado and posing—wasn’t it?

The regular teacher was sitting at a student desk in the back of the room. She was a woman about my age, I guessed, but soft-looking, quiet, conservatively dressed—the kind of woman who seems to be trying to make herself invisible. I thought she might stand up and introduce me, but she was hunching over her notebook, so I wrote my name on the board and asked the class if they’d ever met a poet before. Silence. I asked them if there was anything they wanted to know about me.

A girl in an oversized army jacket in the front row finally raised her hand. “Do you speak Spanish?” she asked.

The student population of El Sereno Junior High was almost exclusively Mexican-American. With a name like Cecilia, why wouldn’t they think I was one of them? I wore my hair long and wild in those days, a mass of dark ringlets, and my skin was brown from the sun. That I looked “foreign” had made me suspect in the white suburbs of Pittsburgh where I lived during elementary school and junior high, but as an adult in Los Angeles, my vaguely “ethnic” appearance had allowed me to slip, undetected, into any number of communities.

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish.”

The whole class registered their disappointment.

I told them my family’s roots were eastern European, as far as I could tell; that my grandparents had been immigrants; that neither of my parents had finished high school; that my father was an airplane mechanic; that I had six brothers and sisters but, “No,” when someone asked, “no children of my own.” I realized I was old enough, at thirty-four, to be the mother to any of the kids in that classroom and was probably older than some of their mothers. I explained that I’d be visiting their class once a week for the next couple of months, leading not a class but a poetry workshop, I emphasized, which meant we were all in this together.

“Have any of you ever written a poem?”

Not a single hand went up.

This was before poetry slams and “spoken word” had really caught fire, when poetry, for most teenagers, was something obscure or ornamental, when the poems in their textbooks had nothing to do with the world in which they lived. I asked them if they knew what poetry was, what it was about, what purpose it served, what good it did? No one said outright that poetry was for sissies, but the notion was hanging there in the air, unspoken.

I noticed a big kid sitting near the back of the room, watching me intently. I sensed that the other kids might be waiting for him to speak up first.

“What had you thought a poet would look like?” I asked them.

This was a trick I’d played in classrooms all over the city: give the students an opportunity to poke fun at the idea of being a poet; get them to make a picture, in words, of someone they’d conjured in their minds, however incongruous that image was compared to the actual person standing in front of them. I didn’t use the word imagination—not at first.

The big kid raised his hand. “An old man with a long gray beard,” he said.

Everyone laughed. Someone else called out, “A lady librarian wearing little gold glasses and her hair in a bun.”

“A dude in tights and a ruffled shirt.”

I wrote what they said on the board. “Keep going,” I said.

“A hippie alien from Mars making everything rhyme.”

“A woman, lost, with crazy hair, with her hair on fire.”

The wilder their ideas got, the more I encouraged them to call out whatever flew into their minds. After ten minutes, I stood next to their words on the board. “What’s that?” I asked. The lines they’d called out had shaped themselves, somehow, miraculously, into a kind of poem; it looked like a poem, anyway. Then I read it aloud to them, and it sounded like a poem. It had a kind of rhythm; it also sounded the way they sounded when they spoke. They looked around at one another and seemed pretty pleased with themselves.

“Poetry is nothing but healthy speech,” Thoreau said. I wrote the quotation on the board and told them a little about Thoreau. I told them there was a long tradition of the poet as outsider, as visionary, as rebel, even as outlaw. I told them there were poets in other countries who’d gone to jail for what they’d written, that language was powerful enough to be dangerous. I told them about Jimmy Santiago Baca, a street kid who’d only learned to read and write in prison and was now a famous poet, performing in front of thousands.

I recited from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul. . . . I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, / And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.”

A couple of the tough little cholas sat up straighter in their seats and turned sassy smiles on the boys.

From Ginsberg, I read, “America when will we end the human war? Go f— yourself with your atom bomb.” I told them there were parts of my favorite poems I couldn’t read out loud to them, things that couldn’t be said in a public school classroom. They wanted to hear everything, they protested. I figured I had them then. I also figured I might be walking a pretty thin line. I looked at the classroom teacher. She seemed to be taking notes.

“Now I want you to write,” I told the kids. “About your own lives, in your own words. What you write doesn’t have to rhyme, and it doesn’t even have to make sense in the usual way. Just write a list of things about yourself—how you see yourself in real life and how you see yourself in your imagination, in your dreams, in your own words. Just dream aloud on the page.”

I wrote on the board: I dream. . . .

They moaned at first, but then picked up pencils and pens, begged sheets of paper from one another, hunched over their desks, and started to write. I walked up and down the aisles, peering over shoulders, urging them on, whispering for them to keep going.

Illustration by Anna Hall

Some of the boys were printing in gang graffiti style; some of the girls were writing in big loops, dotting their i’s with circles or hearts. When a student leaned over to cover his or her page as I walked by, I asked if I could just see it, promising not to read it out loud. I saw lots of spelling and grammar mistakes. I saw that some of them weren’t exactly following my instructions. I saw how hard it was for some of them just to form the letters, how they seemed to be wrestling words onto the page. But they were concentrating fiercely; there was a sense of urgency in the room.

After fifteen minutes, I collected their poems. I would read them at home, safe in my sunny apartment, ten miles away. They’d written about everything from their crushes to their rage at the razor-wire topped fence that surrounded the schoolyard, to their love/hate relationship with what they called mi barrio—the place that was home to them, to their families, their people, but that was also a danger zone. There wasn’t a single poem without a reference to guns, shootings, funerals, deaths. Over the years I worked at the school, I would read student poems that returned again and again to the same kinds of images, the same pleas:

I dream of a time when there will not be funerals
like there are now in these days

I dream of a time when there will not be gangsters
and there will be no guns
and there will not be gangsters shooting at each other

I dream of a time when there will not be graffiti
and everybody will be a whole family
and we will not kill each other

I hadn’t asked for this; I had asked for their dreams. But these were their dreams. They were twelve and thirteen years old.

• • •

I wasn’t going to El Sereno to be anyone’s savior. I didn’t even think, at that point, that my students needed saving. I wanted, simply, to spread the gospel of poetry. I was newly deep in the fires of my own creative process, reading and writing late into the night, in awe of the mysteries of that process, of what could happen on the page, and it was that alchemy and desire I wanted to ignite in my students. I believed in the transformative power of language, and I wanted them to know how it felt to write a poem you didn’t even know you had inside you. I believed that feeling, that experience of bringing something into existence in words, could transform them. I even believed it could change the world.

I would work with this class for two years. There would be times when I allowed myself to think I was one of them, that I understood the world they lived in. I thought of myself as urban, punk, as someone living fairly close to the edge, as scrappy and working-class. But, although I’d occasionally needed new shoes as a girl, I’d never gone without hot meals and clean laundry. I hadn’t grown up dodging bullets and going to funerals. I’d gone to a good private college on scholarship. I didn’t know it yet, but I had as much to learn from my students as they had to learn from me. Maybe more.

I told them, at the outset, that they could call me Cecilia or Celia, but most of them would persist in calling me Miss anyway, or else they’d call me Ceci—the preferred diminutive for my name among Spanish speakers—which would ever after sound like a term of endearment to me.

• • •

My second week at El Sereno, the big kid from the back of the room came lumbering up the aisle and took the seat directly in front of me. Let’s call him Mario, and let’s say that wasn’t his real name. He had the body of a grown man and the face of a little boy. He leaned forward in his desk, absurdly small for him, and asked, “What are we going to write about this week?” His dark eyes focused on me with an urgency that seemed to border on desperation.

“You can write about anything you want.”


“Anything. I’m not going to censor you.”

I noticed that the other kids were listening, too, although Mario’s attention was focused exclusively on me.

“If you want to be a writer, can you write stories and poems, or do you have to choose?”

“It’s up to you,” I said. “Lots of writers write stories and poems and other things, too. You don’t have to choose.”

With his close-cropped hair, and neatly pressed khakis and white T-shirt, Mario could have passed for what my mother called “clean-cut,” but I knew this was a gang uniform. Clearly, he was tough enough, and respected enough by the other kids, to be unafraid of letting his interest show. Although he seemed self-conscious, too, shy in that way that big men can seem shy when talking to someone much smaller than they are. And I thought: If this kid is already hooked on poetry, then the others are in the bag.

But he wasn’t letting me off the hook just yet; he kept asking questions. “Do you have to go to college to be a writer?”

“Not necessarily, but it’s a pretty good idea because college gives you a chance to read a lot and try out different things, to see what you like and what you might want to do with your life.”

What I thought but didn’t say out loud was that college gives you a place to grow up, a relatively safe environment in which to practice being on your own. What I didn’t really stop to think about was how a kid like Mario, from the gang-infested east side of L.A., would ever get into college, let alone be able to pay for it.

Every week after that, Mario took his seat at the front of the room; every week, he had more questions for me about what being a poet meant; every week, he filled a page of notebook paper, or two or three, with dark, heavy lettering, and turned in poems that were filled with raw passion, with fury at the way things were, and, increasingly, with the kind of concrete detail I always urged the students to use, and with startling metaphors. His eagerness to write seemed to grow with every assignment I gave, as did his skill.

At the end of each hour-long workshop, I’d collect what the students had written and take their poems home with me. I’d choose six or seven to read aloud in class the following week. At first, the kids were reluctant, even embarrassed, to read their poems in front of the class. But they soon came to see being chosen as an honor, as an indication that what they’d written had real merit—at least to me, at least to “the poet”—and as a chance to share the kinds of things that weren’t usually shared in a classroom.

• • •

One week, near the end of the term, I asked the students to write manifestos. I read them excerpts from Ginsberg’s “Howl,” from Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” and from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

“It can be a kind of rant,” I said, “a statement to the world, if there’s something you’re really angry or upset about. It can be a poem of protest, a way to stand up for what you believe, using the most powerful words you have. Maybe there’s stuff going on with your ‘generation’ that you want to howl about. Go ahead, howl.” I gave them twenty minutes to write.

When the bell rang, Mario stayed in his seat. He waited for the classroom to empty out, then handed me his sheets of blue-lined notebook paper. The look in his eyes told me he’d written something he hadn’t known he could write, maybe even something that frightened him. I couldn’t tell if he wanted me to read it right then or never to read it at all. I put his poem in my folder and told him I’d see him next week. I watched him walk away with his head down.

I was gathering my books and papers when the classroom teacher approached me. By then, I knew that Mrs. Acosta was doing the exercises I gave during class, writing while her students were writing, although I never asked her to share what she wrote.

“That Mario,” I told her, “he’s really terrific, isn’t he?”

“Mario?” She gave me a look that mixed pity for my naiveté with a kind of exhaustion and despair I’d never seen in her face before. “Mario’s in shit up to his ears. His whole family’s in the gang; it’s a couple of generations deep. He’s failing all his classes. He hardly ever comes to school. It’s a miracle he shows up for this class every week.”

I had thought my bond with the students was special, outside of the usual lines of authority; I’d thought I’d come to know them better than she knew them. I was surprised and a little embarrassed to learn the truth.

I remember sitting at my desk when I got home that day, late afternoon sunlight pouring through the sheer white curtains, which stirred a bit in the breeze. I felt pleased with myself and at peace. I was doing good work, and I was doing it well. My life made sense to me.

I opened the folder of poems and started to read, making notes—mostly praise—in the margins of the pages. There were rants against the president and rants against the school and rants against boys who had broken young girls’ hearts and against girls who had broken the hearts of boys. We all have the same gripes, I thought, and I marked and I smiled and I kept on reading until I came to Mario’s poem.

His manifesto was a rant against the gang — the gang that had ruined his grandfather’s life, he wrote, and his father’s life, his brothers’ lives, and that was ruining his. It was furious and brave. He wrote about violent gang initiation rites in details that terrified me. My heart sank. I knew, by then, how dangerous it was for him to speak out publicly like this. “They jump you in, and they jump you out,” the girl who always wore the big army jacket had told me. “The difference is: when they jump you out, they try to kill you.”

So, what was I supposed to do with this document, this testimony — this confession, really — written in a thirteen-year-old’s heavy pencil scrawl? Should I burn it and pretend I’d never seen it? Should I tell Mario I was wrong, that there were things he should never write about, things that could put his life in danger? He wanted out—the poem made that clear—but maybe there was no way out for him.

I decided just to write a note on the poem about how powerful the writing was and return it to Mario. But, first, I typed a copy of it for our anthology, editing out the lines I thought could get him killed.

When I went back to El Sereno the following week, I didn’t ask Mario to read his poem aloud for the class, although I could sense he wanted me to.

• • •

A few weeks later, we had a poetry reading to celebrate the culmination of the poetry program and the publication of our anthology—a photocopied and stapled affair I’d put together myself. We gathered in the cafeteria, and the anthologies were handed out. The kids were thrilled to see their work “in print.”

From across the room, I watched Mario open his copy of the anthology, find his poem, start to read it silently to himself, and then stop. He looked up and caught my eye. I thought I saw confusion in that look, and disappointment—why would I censor his writing when I claimed to want him to have a voice?—and then, maybe, he understood.

He looked away.

• • •

The next spring, when I walked into Mrs. Acosta’s classroom, some of the kids applauded, and some called out greetings. I looked around for Mario, but he wasn’t there. Finally, a few minutes into my presentation, he lumbered slowly up the aisle and took his seat in the front row. He seemed subdued and tired.

I wanted to stir things up, to start with a bang, so I read excerpts from Anne Waldman’s incantation, Fast Speaking Woman, and asked the students to write poems about themselves in the same style: “I’m the meat woman / I’m the red meat woman.” I paced up and down the aisles as the kids wrote. When I came to Mario’s desk, I looked over his shoulder and read a few lines of what he was writing.

I’m the guy who doesn’t get enough sleep
I’m the guy who changes diapers. . . .

I leaned closer to the page and whispered, “Mario?”

He straightened his shoulders and looked at me. “I’m a father now,” he said. “I have a baby son.”

I touched his arm and told him to keep writing. I stood there for a while and watched. He added lines about taking his son to the park, about rocking him in his arms, about staying up all night when the baby cried. This young man, this father, was in the eighth grade. He wasn’t even old enough to drive.

After class, I hung around after the students had left to talk to Mrs. Acosta. I told her how heartbroken I felt for Mario. She looked at me and smiled.

“Mario’s doing OK. He got his girlfriend pregnant, and her family moved away and left her behind. They just abandoned her. And she’s only thirteen. So Mario and his family took her in. He found an old crib in a junkyard and refinished it. He’s making As in all of his classes. He just won a savings bond for an essay he wrote.”

• • •

Luis Rodríguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. had just come out that year. I bought a copy and read about Rodríguez’s experiences in the gangs of East L.A. in the 1970s. Some of what he wrote about was familiar to me, thanks to the kids I taught at El Sereno. I knew it was easy to get into a gang, much harder to get out. What Rodríguez wrote that I hadn’t known was that becoming a father could allow a gang member to slip into the background, that fatherhood might provide not only an incentive for getting out but also one of the few routes of escape.

Mario came to class faithfully all through the term, always taking his seat in the front row, but he was much quieter now, and his poems were quieter, too—more reflective, more inward-looking.

At the end of that year’s program, I put together another anthology of the students’ poems, and we had another reading, this time in the school library. Mario would be graduating in a couple of weeks, going on to high school, and I knew it was unlikely I’d ever see him again. After the reading, I took him aside and handed him a signed copy of Rodríguez’s book, telling him it was a graduation present. He seemed stunned, as if he’d never been given a gift before. He towered over me, so I stood on tiptoes to give him a hug. I could feel the power in that young body when he squeezed me back. “I wish you all the best,” I said. I wanted to believe that a door had opened, just a crack, and that, somehow, this kid might slip through.

I continued to lead workshops at El Sereno for several more years, and I got occasional reports on Mario. One of his former teachers told me she’d heard he’d been admitted to UC Berkeley on scholarship. Later, one of his former classmates told me that, no, he’d gone to Fresno State and was raising his son alone, the mother having abandoned them both. I keep hoping that at least some of this is true, that Mario made it out and made another kind of life for himself. I keep hoping, maybe against all reason, that someday I’ll see his name on the cover of a book of poems.

AFTER WRITING THIS ESSAY, CECILIA WOLOCH TRACKED DOWN mario. read the update and Hear Her thoughts about the responsibilities we have to those we write about.

About the Author

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Cecilia Woloch

Cecilia Woloch is a poet, writer, teacher, and performer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of six collections of poems and a novel, as well as essays and reviews.

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