From pain, pure poetry in Room 219

February 15, 2012 

ESL students at Fairfax High turned personal struggles into poetry for a recent performance. Photo/Clive Alcock

The players included a teenager from El Salvador missing her faraway mom, a boy from Africa’s Ivory Coast telling a family secret, a girl from Israel wrestling with what it means to be real, not “plastic.”

They spoke their lines with honesty and transparent emotion. Dressed all in black and moving about a spare stage, they took turns in the spotlight, young faces aglow.

Was this a pitch-perfect ensemble created by a Hollywood casting director? Or maybe an off-Broadway troupe preparing for a long theatrical run?

Hardly. This group came together in Karen Ritvo’s English as a Second Language class at Fairfax High School.

And the words they spoke were true—wrenched from the struggles of their real lives and spun into autobiographical poetry as part of a special collaboration with the Music Center.

The chalkboard in Ms. Ritvo's ESL classroom.

When the students took the stage recently for a one-time-only performance at the Greenway Arts Alliance theater on the Fairfax campus, it was the culmination of a creative and transformative process that had started months ago with studying the art of others: Pablo Neruda’s Poetry and Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.

Soon, the students were coming up with revelations of their own, as they began crafting poems based on real experiences of struggle and change.

Some grappled with universal experiences of being a teen—a first kiss, or the heartache posed by a girl wanting to be “just friends.” But many sketched a very specific reality of being young, separated from loved ones and trying to make it in a strange land.

…All I have is her voice on the other
end of the line telling me “Baby everything is gonna be okay.”
That doesn’t take away the pain so I go to bed and wait for the
lights to go down so I can start to cry…
—“How it feels to miss my mom” by Daisy Juarez

Others wrote of the pain of dislocation, and of trying to make sense of a strange new language.

Some strangers just glance at me
This town is a maze
This foreign language sounds like unknown magical words
Colored signs make me confused
I need a new map
To go home to my adorable family
—“A New Map” by Yunha Kim

They described feeling invisible—or, even worse, too visible.

How shy she is in the center of this strange land
Everything she sees is unusual and unfamiliar
No one pays attention to her but she feels only tons of stares on the back of her head
—“Nothing Can Stop Me” by AiLing Lu

So why do you choose to be so rude
If all we want from you is your help to open up
I know you think I’m an alien
But like you I’m from earth
—Untitled, by Sheyla Jordan

Then it was time to move from writing to performing. Madeleine Dahm, a Music Center teaching artist from London, (yes, she’s from someplace else, too) worked with the students to stage a unique production that melded their original poetry with dance moves from Revelations and some recited lines from Neruda.

The show ended with each student speaking their name and where they’d come from: China. El Salvador. Ethiopia. Guatemala. Ivory Coast. Israel. Korea. Mexico. Uzbekistan.

The families, friends, fellow students and well-wishers who’d packed the small theater applauded enthusiastically, some wiping away tears.

“This is as good as education can get, I don’t care what level,” Fairfax principal Ed Zubiate said during a brief Q & A with the performers after the show.

Then it was over. The next week, the end of the semester would scatter the students, breaking up the world they’d formed in Room 219 and bringing down the curtain on all they experienced together.

But not on what they’d learned.

“After the performance, I realized that I don’t need to be afraid of anything,” said Natanel Giladi, 17, of Israel, whose poem “Who I really am” dealt with how hard it is to find one’s true self.

“I feel like wow, I finally said it,” said 17-year-old Kevin Miranda, of El Salvador, who wrote about losing his aunt and grandmother to cancer.  “Because I didn’t even talk to my mom about what happened. It was just something I had inside that I didn’t have the opportunity to express. It was my first time on stage.”

“I learned that I’m not the only one who feels weird or feels sad in this country,” said Daisy Juarez, 19, also of El Salvador, who’d written about missing her mom. “They have their problems, too. It’s not only me. I learned not to judge.”

The poet-performers share a moment onstage with Dahm, kneeling at left, and Ritvo, standing center with scarf.

Posted 2/14/12

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