Feature Blog Post by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon
I used to be an Egyptian beetle
but now I am an Egyptian angel.
I used to be a human
but now I am an evolved human.
I used to be a cello
But now I am a piano.
I used to be a hitman
but now I am a wiseman.
-resident at Marygrove Children’s Home
We merged the music of rap artist, k-os, the lesson plans of poet, Kenneth Koch, and the adventure comic strips created by our students, in order to write poetry this past week. The lines above are a portion of a sonnet from the point of view of a post-apocalyptic warrior. After listening to the song, “Man I Used to Be” by k-os, the students wrote with the constraints of completing the lines “I used to be…but now I am,” an assignment that the late Kenneth Koch wrote about in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. In addition, they were asked to fill in the blanks in a sort of Mad Libs style, using the name of an animal, a type of instrument, and action verb etc.. This was a good time to go over concepts that can be the high schoolers’ equivalent of doing taxes. Diagramming or learning the parts of speech seems unnecessarily complicated and hopelessly tedious to many kids. Comparing adjectives to adverbs is more interesting in the context of spies and/or superpowers.
The music of k-os fit the idea of I used to be…but now I am in that the rapper compares human evolution to the evolution of a man over the course of his lifetime. I chose the song because it has hints of pop as well as hip-hop, so I hoped it would appeal to the students’ different tastes.
Can I be candid, I can’t stand it
Rap bandit, got Kevin acting frantic
I wanna swing my sword decapitate
But what is a man if he acts like an ape
K-os isn’t Walt Whitman but his lyrics are also more complicated than a Justin Bieber single. He doesn’t rhyme me with be or girl with…girl. This song is also neither the Barney song nor is it “F the Police.” Instead, it expresses angst combined with a more mature optimism.
Two months ago, one of our students came to the session with his hand in a cast. When I asked him what had happened, he looked down and said, “I was doin’ somethin’ I shouldn’a been doin’. I was bein’ stupid.” Last week, that same student told us that he received a good citizen’s award at his high school. A few weeks ago, we were informed that two other students, who were accustomed to grades below a 2.0, were able to raise their GPA to above a 3.0. And just two days ago, our organization received notice of our status as an official non-profit in the state of Missouri. This milestone is thanks to the work of co-founder, Steve Handoyo, who doesn’t get to partake in the immediate satisfaction that weekly tutoring provides, and instead, endures the language of IRS forms for our sake.
We know that the lives of these young St. Louisans will continue to peak and trough. Can YourWords STL actually make a difference in the evolution of individuals? That question can’t be answered at this point. We listen to the local and national news. Then we tutor and we write because that’s what we know how to do well. And we jot down the smallest signs of change, although we aren’t recording the curvature of a finch’s beak or the size of a turtle’s shell.