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Graduation Day: Student poet finds freedom in expression

Courtesy Leah Bailly

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As the school year winds down, many students are preparing for the next steps, be it travel or jobs or college. It's an exciting time but it can also raise feelings of anxiety and loneliness. As part of the California Report's Graduation Day series, we hear from Los Angeles student Kenzie Givens,  a straight-A high school senior who navigates questions of race and isolation through poetry.

The last year of high school can be exciting, but for even the brightest students, it can be lonely. Today as part of our Graduation Day series, we'll meet high school senior Kenzie Givens, a straight-A student from Los Angeles who uses poetry to navigate questions of race and isolation.

It’s a chilly night in South L.A. and more than 100 young people have packed into a small theater for an open-mike poetry reading. Onstage is a tough-looking teenager—she’s dressed in a leather jacket, mini-skirt and combat boots, and her hair is done up in dreads.

But this young African-American poet, Kenzie Givens, doesn’t always feel so confident. She writes poetry because she often can’t connect with other students her age.

“When I’m at school I’m usually pretty shy,” said Kenzie, who is 17. “I have this little place where I sit off. It’s actually behind this little shrubbery thing—and that’s usually where I go and eat my lunch. If people are around me, my head tends to be in a book.”

Kenzie doesn’t go to school in her own African-American neighborhood. In the third grade, her parents chose to start sending her to charter schools in mostly wealthy white neighborhoods. Now she attends high school in the Palisades, an isolated beach neighborhood known to be one of the richest in the state.

“I tried to make friends with people and tried to ingratiate myself into different groups and stuff, but I found out that in order to do that I’d have to be someone that I was not,” she said. ”And that didn’t appeal to me. So I just kind of decided to be stubborn, and stick it out alone.”

Kenzie occupies a very different world when she’s away from school. The Crenshaw neighborhood in central Los Angeles is more than 70 percent African American. Signs on shop doors say “Black Owned” and “Support the Hood.” In a tiny hair salon, Kenzie gets her dreads done while her father, Darren Givens, chats with the other fathers assembled there.

“It was important to us to be in an environment where, one, they would be safe," Givens said. "But they’d be around their own people as well, able to go outside and play, drive around, participate in the neighborhood, go to their own stores, and different things.”

Caroline Givens, Kenzie’s mother, is a teacher in an urban South Central school. She said it was important to send Kenzie to a school that would prepare her for college, even though it was difficult sending her so far each day.

“I would have liked her to have more African American friends, which I think she doesn’t have as many. Does she have any?" she asked her husband.

"I don’t think she has any African American friends. No.”

Kenzie agreed it isn’t easy.

“I’m certain there’s someone at my school that I could have really great conversations with, but I’m so focused on my books and exploring topics on my own, I never get to talk about it with anyone," she  said. "I’ve never had a boyfriend, or maybe my boyfriend is a book. I’m not sure.”

As the final days of high school tick away, Kenzie finds ways of connecting with other poets. Recently, she started a poetry club at her charter high school. It isn’t popular, but its members are dedicated to the craft.

During a drizzly lunch period, four teenagers assemble in a classroom to read their poems. There are no notebooks here, no scribbled journals. The students write and read their poems on their cell phone screens, their fingers scrolling the words. The poetry club members all agree that poetry is misunderstood at their school.

“When you tell people you’re a poet, they think you’re all sad and depressed, when it really isn’t like that,” one poet, Daniel, explains.

Kenzie expands on why poetry is so important to her.

“I write what feels most real at any moment. It can be any experience that is so moving that it demands to be written down," she said. "I think my biggest fear is probably a very common one, and that is of disappearing entirely. I‘d like to know that I mattered.”

On the night of her first open-mike reading, Kenzie’s nervousness melts away. She looks grounded, confident about her future. This fall, she’s heading to Reed College in Portland, where she has secured early admission and a scholarship. She is certain that the open environment at Reed will be accepting of her poetry -- and of her identity.

Meanwhile, here in this crowded theater full of poets and performance artists, she’s no outsider. Onstage, Kenzie Givens is at home.