Last year a San Pedro teacher asked me to visit his high school English class to talk about being a reporter. I did. And on the visit I also gave the students a writing exercise inspired by my days as a performance poet nearly 20 years ago. The teacher and I were surprised by what the kids wrote. I went back to the campus a few weeks ago to revisit that poem and record it for Offramp.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Peter Riehl’s 10th grade English class at Port of L.A. Charter High School is that the classroom had no windows.
It took a few minutes to realize that didn’t matter.
On the ledge that holds the dry erase markers at the front of the class, Riehl has lined up about 15 feet of books, side by side. These are the windows to the world. What’s there? "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s collected stories, "Night" by Elie Wiesel, and "Woman Hollering Creek" by Sandra Cisneros.
Teacher Peter Riehl says the selection’s as diverse as the students. "There’s the students who read and let everyone know about it, there’s the students who read and don’t let anyone know about it, there’s the students who love videogames, the students who love their music, hip hop, rock, oldies. There’s the students who are happiest when no one knows they’re there and there’s the students who make themselves very well known through their words, through their actions," he said.
After I talked with the kids about my job at KPCC, I gave them a straightforward writing prompt, write the words “We are...” and complete the sentence. You could write it in Spanish too. They put pen to paper. I explained to them that in the mid 1990s the poetry group I’d been a part of, the Taco Shop Poets, wrote a collective poem based on the same prompt. This is what the students wrote.
we are the new age
we are the inspired
we are sparks
we are passion
we are the students
we are one
we are the athletes
we are the smile of our parents
we are the environment
we are the colors in a rainbow
we are the beads in a bracelet
we are the ones that want to move ahead
we are one in so many
we are just like everyone else
we are a community
we are the voices that cannot be ignored
we are the most spirited
we are the innocent
we are the neglected
we are our own sense of nostalgia
we are the tight grip on an adult’s conscience
we are the pen that reveals our own stories
we are the sun peeking through the clouds
we are the raindrops that cause the flood
we are the kids who dare to dream
we are crying out for help
we are ready to face a challenge
we are the people of tomorrow
we are lightning striking the ground, unpredictable never striking twice in the same spot
we are there
we are everywhere
we are nothing
we are everything
we are the young people
we are the foundations of society
nosotros somos valientes
we are the dreamers
we are the future
we are the laughter
we are the strangers
we are not alone
nosotros somos la luz de nuestros padres
we are immigrants
nosotros somos Mexicanos, los hispanos
we are the dreamers that dream forever
nosotros somos los guerreros
we are the strong believers
we are one
we are forever changing
we are the future
we are individuals
we are similar
somos el fuego en la alma
somos el presente
we are the target audience
we are unorthodox
we are many
The first person singular “I” blends with the plural. Maybe it’s easier to begin writing about oneself by beginning a sentence with “we.”
While Port of L.A. High School is a high-performing campus, with a college prep curriculum, Riehl says there are plenty of things that worry them. "Family issues, grades, uncertain future, even at the sophomore level the future’s uncertain, not necessarily career wise but where am I going to be in three years."
"San Pedro, and as well as our schools is mostly Latino, Hispanic, mostly Mexican, as well as Guatemalan, Salvadoran, etc. But heavily Mexican, Mexican American and you know within that there’s a lot of experiences. Some are English only in the household, some are very, very bilingual in Spanglish, maybe trilingual, English, Spanish, and Spanglish."
Books have taken these students on Latin American magical realism trips and through a memoir of the Holocaust in World War Two. Teacher Peter Riehl says they also have a taste for tales of gritty, urban life, like "Always Running" by Luis Rodriguez and "Edgewater Angels" by Sandro Meallet.
"I wish we could do more creative writing necessarily but as a college prep school and things like that, it’s more of the analytical writing, more of the straightforward writing, which is obviously crucial, but they love being able to express themselves. You look at their binders and they have their pictures, and they got their nickname there written in big letters, any way to express themselves," Riehl said.
With that, my writing exercise with the students in Peter Riehl’s 10th grade English class at Port of L.A. Charter High School in San Pedro came to an end. For that moment, it felt like we had done justice to the writing in the books lined shoulder to shoulder at the front of the classroom.
The Notorious Nery Del Cid
Gabriel Joseph Martinez