Guest Blog Post by Executive Director, Steve Handoyo
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into my first actual YourWords STL workshop, but it certainly did not include the generative, ablative, or dative cases of Latin.
Walking into the end of a house meeting at the Drury House last Monday, the tutors started setting out netbooks. Once turned over to us, the boys put their heads down and pivoted to homework tutoring. I heard Anna chatting with one student, and could have sworn I heard the word “Latin”. Indeed, he had a Latin dictionary out and was going through declensions. I’ll admit, the thought went through my head that I was more qualified to tutor Latin than algebra.
Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant
How did I end up creaking open the attic door and rummaging for imperfect tenses and gerundive declensions in the dark? One of our students was teaching himself Latin through a dictionary. He had taken it for one year in the past, but Latin was not offered at his current school. I started praising how intimidating Latin sounds in an argument, mentioning the movie Tombstone, but deciding against citing “In Vino, Veritas”. I was left with “Semper ubi sub ubi” as the only other Latin phrase I could conjure, which was also left unsaid. It’s a Catholic school boy joke so bad that Niles uses it in an episode of Frazier.
I caught myself in the midst of a some disembodied soliloquy expounding on the creative kindling of poetry found within the rigid scaffolding of Latin. He smiled at me, nodding towards the student to my right and educated me, “''Yeah, me and M-- are poets.”
Virtus, virtutis, virtuti, virtutem, virtute, virtutes, virtutum, virtutibus, virtutes, virtutibus
Adapting a NYT lesson idea, Anna handed the boys a succession of photos, all in media res (!), dramatic and engaging. Low laughs at the predicaments and insta-theories on each pictures’ actual stories immediately started permeating the room. Anna asked them to imagine themselves as a character somewhere in the scene pictured, and to write who they were, what they were doing, and what was going on around them. Fascinating interpretations were quietly scribbled and then read aloud. Often the students were an indistinct figure I didn’t even notice out the window, or unseen observers out of frame.
Anna then asked them to use that same device to put the superheroes they’ve been working on the past few weeks into a picture in their mind, and animate the scene. Who? Where? When? Why? There was a barely perceptible shift, such that I wasn’t sure some were even paying attention. Maybe they were doodling, or maybe they were just writing a few cursory words from my vantage off to the side.
The allotted 15 minutes blinked past, and Anna started calling out volunteers to read their work. As seems consistent from reading the other blogs, the students’ heads often stay down, and their pens keep painting. Some read, others had Anna read. Apparently, they had definitely been writing. What they created astonished me. Initially wondering if anyone was even participating, I could not be prepared for the vivid scenes and worlds that popped up all around the room, evocative, and dense. Their worlds were richly formed, and all senses were attuned, intensity crackling in each piece.
I watched the short clip of Ta-Nehesi Coates that Anna posted on YourWords STL’s Facebook page this morning. His words embody what I felt for the students in that room.
“I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage – it’s almost an act of physical courage”.
He describes the hopeless attempt to transfer that organic moment in your mind's eye into words. But you try anyway and then present your failure to the world – that takes courage. Yet how courageous are these students at Marygrove, with a fractured support system much less a consistent home, who are willing to put their imagination out in the world for all to judge and maybe mock.
Yes, you all are Poets. Yes, you all are Courage.