Feature Blog Post by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon
The classroom was smaller yesterday. We have been tutoring the young men in the transitional housing of Marygrove Children’s Home, weekly, for almost nine months. Ages 17 to 21, from all parts of St. Louis City and County, our students are preparing to leave the comfort of Marygrove’s 44-acre campus of woods and rolling hills. While the apartments of Marygrove’s Independent Living Facilities are available, some move elsewhere for a job or school.
In the YourWords classroom, we see the residents change from a resolute folding of one’s arms, in a statement of “the last thing I need right now is poetry,” to raising one’s hand, eager to share one’s work, to applauding the work of others. We also see downcast eyes become bright and attentive, then wide and acutely aware of imminent independence.
The students have been occupied with completing end-of-the-year projects, studying for finals, and filling out job applications. Many have been excited about their improved grades and the interviews on which they’ll be going. Others are quieter. A buddy isn’t in his usual seat because he has moved out.
April is the cruelest month for many…maybe it’s the weather, those notorious showers. Or is it the sunshine and budding trees, when one wants more time for hibernating. Maybe it’s the transitions that the end of a school year brings. For this group and the other residents of Marygrove, life has been cruel. Perceiving low spirits in the classroom, we brought out a time-tested mood-shifter, a little music.
Image by Anna Ojascastro Guzon
However, (note to self) do not start a lesson with a group of male teens, by stating, “We’re going to take a look at the lyrics of a musical!”
“It’s called Hamilton. Anyone heard of it?”
One tutor raises her hand.
“It’s about Alexander Hamilton. Anyone heard of him?”
Now, the boys were looking disappointed. But I let the music speak for itself. I turn the music up loud so the base can be felt on the table tops. In the first five lines of the musical, the writer and composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, encapsulates the story of Alexander Hamilton.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
We’ve been working on science fiction short stories all semester but they were struggling to develop story lines. Their character descriptions and plots were in some ways autobiographical, although filled with yet-to-be-invented technology and secret superpowers. One character lost his mother, another encountered a series of break-ups with girlfriends, two others mentioned not seeing one’s parents since a very young age. We had been reading work from Tolkien, Bradbury, Rowling, and Butler, but the students were more inspired by their own lives. So we brought biography into the mix. Thanks to a hint from the YourWords STL executive director, Steve Handoyo, we decided to use material from Hamilton.
Without even hearing the music, one can read the lyrics of Hamilton and identify the same hip-hop rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and enjambment that one hears on the radio. But that’s just a part of the musical’s power. Similar to the work of Jay-Z, Drake, or Eminem, the lyrics of Hamilton describes loss and everything born from it: fear, anger, sadness, bravado, and courage. Within the framework of the American Revolution, and the transformation into a founding father of the United States, the story of overcoming odds becomes exponentially profound.
Put a pencil to his temple. Connected it to his brain And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain
Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world is gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”
My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
After listening to the opening song, I asked the class, “What are this character’s desires? The entire story is right here. What does the main character want?”
“To be somebody.”
“And what does he fear?”
“Being a beggar.”
“What else does he fear and what else does he want?”
“He wants to be a part of something. He doesn’t want to be alone.”
We then passed out questions based on the lesson plan, “Meet Your Protagonist,” by Ryan Harty, included in the book, Don’t Forget to Write, published by 826 National. The students mapped out their main character’s desires, fears, secrets, and telling characteristics. After 30 minutes, most were still writing steadily. I decided not to interrupt their flow by asking for volunteers to read, as we usually do. This time, we let them write, escaping into their own thoughts and words.
When time was up they wanted to keep working, and one young man wanted to keep his notebook. (Routinely, we collect all their work at the end of class, to ensure that none of it becomes lost.) When I first met him, I asked him to join our workshop, but he said he had already graduated from high school and he didn’t need help writing. He then left the room. Gradually, however, he has joined our sessions and during our time for homework help, he works on job applications. After our last session, he told me he wanted to keep working on his story on his own. He clutched his notebook and said, “I won’t lose it.”