Between the Lines
This thought-provoking companion to Nikki Grimes’ Coretta Scott King Award-winning Bronx Masquerade shows the capacity poetry has to express ideas and feelings, and connect us with ourselves and others.
Darrian dreams of writing for the New York Times. To hone his skills and learn more about the power of words, he enrolls in Mr. Ward’s class, known for its open-mic poetry readings and boys vs. girls poetry slam. Everyone in class has something important to say, and in sharing their poetry, they learn that they all face challenges and have a story to tell—whether it’s about health problems, aging out of foster care, being bullied for religious beliefs, or having to take on too much responsibility because of an addicted parent. As Darrian and his classmates get to know one another through poetry, they bond over the shared experiences and truth that emerge from their writing, despite their private struggles and outward differences.
Excerpt from Between the Lines
I check out Mr. Ward’s classroom early, find dark walls covered with poetry hanging in picture frames bright as jelly beans.
Who wrote all these poems? And where exactly does Open Mike Friday take place?
My eyes travel the room until I notice a low stage, off to the side. It’s not very big, but there’s a spotlight hanging overhead, and in the center of the stage is a microphone just begging for somebody to grab it. Me? I’m a newspaperman. What am I even doing here?
I look back over the last week, trace the thinking that brought me to this class.
Like every other day, a week ago started off with breakfast.
BREAKFAST ON THE BOUNCE FOR FATHER AND SON
¡Perfecto! If I was writing a story about this morning, that would be my headline. I drop two waffles into the toaster, smiling to myself. Papi looks up from El Diario, wondering why. I shake my head, sorry he’s reading the wrong paper. For me, it’s the New York Times. The old man is cool otherwise, though, driving a city bus double shifts sometimes just so he can keep replacing the clothes I grow out of. He doesn’t say much, but he loves me enough for two.
I wash one waffle down with milk, grab the other for the road, and head out of the door.
On the way to school, I run into Zeke and Shorty, guys from my neighborhood. As usual, they’re talking smack.
“You watch, Shorty,” spouts Zeke. “I’m gonna be the biggest thing in hip-hop since Heavy D.”
“What you been smokin’?” counters Shorty. “You can’t even sing! But me? I got serious moves on the court, plan on bein’ the next Kobe Bryant. Look out!”
They laugh to take the edge off of dreaming bigger than they believe. I keep my dreams to myself. I don’t need their laughter. Besides, I have to pay attention to these cracked sidewalks so I don’t trip or step on broken whiskey bottles or the dirty syringes that turn up everywhere.
“So, what you plan on doing to get your Black ass outta the Bronx?” Zeke asks me.
“You mean my Puerto Rican ass.” I’ve told Zeke a million times, I’m not Black.
“Quit lying! You Black. You just got an accent,” he says every time. And every time, I shake my head.
For the record, my mother’s not Black. My father’s not Black. I’m. Not. Black. We are Puertorriqueño. Boricuas. From the island. But what the hell. Black and Brown people all get treated the same, anyway.
I look at Zeke and shrug, then jog ahead, disappearing around the corner.
BROWN BOY BETRAYS RACE
That’s what they’d say if they knew I planned on writing for the New York Times. Let’s face it, some of those papers got a bad habit of getting Black and Brown stories wrong. We all know it. But I figure the only way to get our stories straight is by writing them ourselves. So I’ll get in there, show them how it’s done.
Yeah. Only I’m not sure how exactly to get started.
I whip out my notebook, flip past the last local news story I wrote, and scribble: See Mr. Winston for help.
Writing my plans down makes them feel solid. I smile all the rest of the way to school.
Lunch bell rings just in time. Stomach’s growling loud enough to wake the dead. I jump up, head for the door. The Times lying unfolded on the teacher’s desk stops me cold.
“Mr. Klein?” I ask. “Can I borrow your paper over lunch? I promise not to get mustard on it.”
“No problem,” he says. “I’m done with it, anyway.”
I scoop up the paper and tuck it under my arm.
TEACHER’S CASUAL KINDNESS REMEMBERED
The Times is like my bible: If it says something, it must be true. You can’t say that about too many papers these days. Seems like half of what gets printed is based on outright lies. I’m all about truth, though, so I figure the Times and me are a good fit.
I hit my locker, grab my sandwich, and sprint to the yard so I can read without interruption. I find a quiet spot, unwrap my sandwich, unfold my paper, and gobble up both before the bell rings.
Home. Ready to chow down on anything I can find. I dump cap, jacket, backpack in a sloppy trail on my way to the kitchen and plant my face in a bowl of cold cereal. I don’t even hear Papi coming in early.
“Darrian!” he barks. “What’s your stuff doing all over the floor? You know better.”
“Thorry,” I manage, mouth full of flakes. Papi must not be too mad. He goes quiet in there. But just in case, I swallow fast and pop into the living room to clear my mess.
Papi’s in the middle of the floor, flipping through my news stories. He looks up when he hears me.
“¿Qué es esto?” he asks, waving the notebook at me. “Some new kind of homework?”
My ledger of headlines and neighborhood features is hard to explain.
“Not homework,” I whisper. “Just . . . stories I write . . . for practice.”
I clear my throat, ball my fists, ready for the laughter I’m afraid of.
“Practice for being a reporter at the New York Times.”
I grit my teeth, wait for it. Papi grunts, hands me the evidence of my crime.
“Go on, hijo. Pick your stuff up. Put it away.”
That’s it. That’s all he says.
I breathe, forgetting all about being hungry.
Later, I flop on my bed, bury my head under a pillow.
Now I’ve gone and done it, said out loud what I want to do, to be. But how do I get there from here? Where do I start?
First thing in the morning, my questions carry me to the library to see Mr. Winston. Before I reach his desk, I notice a girl hunched over a table I can barely see the top of, there are so many books spilling across it. I can only make out one title without stopping to stare like some creep. It says e. e. cummings, all in small letters. Is that supposed to be a name? ’Cause that’s weird. I mean, who writes their name in all small letters? Never mind. I’m here to see Mr. Winston. He’s the only person I know who loves newspapers as much as I do.
“So, you want to be a newspaperman,” says Mr. Winston.
“Well, here’s what you do.”
I whip out my pen to take notes.
“Get excellent grades so you can attend a good journalism school. Apply for a summer job at a local paper so you can see the work up close. As for right now, keep studying the dailies. And learn as much as you can about all sorts of writing, not just articles but essays, short stories, even poetry.”
I quit writing when he gets to that last thing.
LIBRARIAN LOSES HIS MIND
“Poetry? Why do I need to learn about poetry?”
“Because poetry, more than anything else, will teach you about the power of words. If you’re going to be a reporter, that’s something you need to understand.”
I nod, only half convinced. Poetry. That’s a new one.
I drag myself in the door that night, a Brown balloon with all the air let out.
How am I supposed to learn about poetry?
I’m folded up in a kitchen chair, head on the table, when Papi comes in.
Something lands heavy beside my head. I crack one eye open, see the bold black ink of a familiar logo that gets my attention. I sit up straight, rub my eyes.
“Folks leave newspapers on the bus almost every day,” says Papi. “I usually toss these out at the end of my shift, along with El Diario and all the other papers. Pero now that I know you like these ones so much, I figured I’d bring ’em home.”
Two days’ worth of New York Times are right there, rolled up next to me. My eyes turn from the headlines to my dad’s face, then back to the paper.
“Gracias, Papi,” is as much as I can manage between all that grinning and feeling like something’s stuck in my throat.
GIFT LEAVES BOY SPEECHLESS
Next day at school, I hear some kids talking about Open Mike poetry readings that happen in Mr. Ward’s class on Fridays. He taught tenth grade last year, but he moved over to eleventh grade this year, which works out for me since that’s the grade I’m in. We’re only one week into school, so I beg my guidance counselor to switch me over into his class. I beg with puppy eyes so she won’t have a chance to say no. She shakes her head, tries to hide a smile, and signs me up.
Now I’m here, checking out Mr. Ward’s classroom before the rest of the class piles in.
I notice one of the poems, shaped like a Z. That gets me to look closer. The shape doesn’t make sense until I read it. It’s a pretty cool poem about Zorro and how most people think of Latinos as one stereotype or another, because all they know about us is some fairy tale they’ve seen in the movies or on TV.
“Raul Ramirez wrote that one,” says a voice behind me. I practically pee in my pants! I didn’t hear anybody come into the room.
“I’m Mr. Ward,” he says. “And you are?”
“Darrian Lopez,” I manage, still breathing heavy. “I just signed up for your class.”
Mr. Ward smiles.
“So, what do you think of the poem?”
“It’s pretty good. I mean, I like it,” I say, trying not to sound too impressed.
“Well, these are all poems by last year’s class. I took them all down at the end of the year and turned them into an anthology. I made photocopies of my favorite poems, though, so that I could hang them back on the wall. By the end of this year, there will be new poems. Maybe one of them will be yours.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say. Anyway, that’s the end of our conversation, because the class is filling up. I wait until everyone sits down so that I can tell which seats are still free.
Mr. Ward welcomes me into class quietly, which I’m happy about. He motions me to the back, where there are a couple of empty seats. I take one near a pretty black girl with straight blond hair. I don’t know how I’m going to feel about poetry, but I know I like the scenery!
I pay attention when the roll is called.
I wonder about the personalities behind each name.
“Angela Marie Bailey.”
I turn my head. Wait! That’s the girl I saw in the library! Cool. Now I’ll get to ask her about that e. e. cummings book.
Oh! That’s me. “Here.”
Every now and then, my mind wanders. I don’t catch every name.
I notice there are more girls than guys.
I like that.
Jenesis, huh? So that’s who I’m sitting next to! Her name makes me think of beginnings. A new class. A new year. This is going to be interesting.
“Yesterday,” says Mr. Ward, “we started talking about narrative poetry. A narrative poem, simply put, is a poem that tells a story. In order to write a narrative poem, then, you must first decide on—what?”
“Your story,” says Jenesis.
“Exactly. Open your notebooks and, for the next few minutes, I want you to think about a small story, or an anecdote from your childhood, and write about it in a paragraph or two. Keep it simple.”
“What kind of story?”
I’m glad someone else asks so I don’t have to.
“You decide. It could be a favorite memory of someone in your family, a road trip or vacation that stands out, something that happened in school when you were little. You are the narrator. You choose the story. But keep in mind, you will be turning this into a poem, so keep the story short.”
Story. I can do that.
“Close your eyes,” suggests Mr. Ward. “It may help you to focus.”
Mr. Ward is right. I close my eyes and concentrate on Papi, on how we used to be together when I was little. As soon as I do, I remember the rattle of newspaper as Papi folded El Diario on Sunday morning at the breakfast table. I remember scrambling up onto his lap so I could see what he was looking at. Thinking of those days makes me smile. I open my eyes and start to write.
That night, our assignment is to turn our paragraphs into a poem. Closing my eyes doesn’t help much now. All I know about poetry is it rhymes, so I keep trying to find words that rhyme with newspaper. Forget it!
In the mornings
Papi and me
sat at the breakfast table
with El Diario
before I was able
to read or understand
in Papi’s hand . . .
I know. Pretty lame.
The next time we have class, Mr. Ward starts off by asking, “How many of you wrote your poem?”
Almost all our hands go up.
“And how many of you tried to write your poems in rhyme?”
My hand slips up, along with maybe half the kids.
“And how did that work for you?”
The last question was followed by a lot of grumbling, including from me.
“I’m not surprised,” says Mr. Ward. “Most people mistakenly think that all poetry has to rhyme. In fact, they use the words poem and rhyme interchangeably. But rhyme is only one element of some forms of poetry, and there are many forms that don’t employ rhyme at all.”
Damn! Now you tell me!
TEACHER BURIES THE LEAD
“Instead of trying to force your words to rhyme, I want you to start thinking of poetry in a different way. A poem paints a picture using words. So a narrative poem is a poem that tells a story and paints a picture using words. You want to use language that is lyrical, that is descriptive. If rhyme comes to you naturally, it’s fine to use it. But if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. Rhyme and poetry are not synonymous! Okay?”
I copy down everything Mr. Ward says, word for word. After school, I pull out my paragraphs about Papi and me reading the newspaper, and I start working on a brand-new poem. This time, I give up worrying about rhyme and start paying more attention to lining up words with the same letters and turning words into pictures.
I won’t lie. It takes a lot of practice. Like, instead of just writing paper when I’m talking about the special paper the daily news is printed on, I try to find words that tell you how that paper feels when you touch it. Writing this way takes more time, but it’s worth it. The poems I end up with are pretty decent. They still have a little rhyme in them, though. Even so, I can’t wait to show the latest poem to Mr. Ward.
The following day, Mr. Ward introduces some kid named Tyrone from his class last year. He invited him to drop in to kick things off for our first Open Mike Friday poetry reading. I thought I knew what to expect. Not even close.
“Y’all got no idea, but you’re in for something deep. Trust me,” I tell Mr. Ward’s class.
“Mr. Ward asked me to help y’all get this year’s Open Mike Friday started. I’m totally pumped to do it, especially since I can’t hang so much this year. I’ve got some schedule conflicts since I’ve decided to go for a JC—that’s junior college, for those of you who don’t know the lingo. I need to kick up my grades in math, in science, in history, in . . . well, in pretty much every subject but English. Time to man up if I’m gonna chase my dreams, as my homey Wesley ‘Bad Boy’ Boone would say. Anyway, I’ll be dropping in during my study period, when I can. I’m not in class officially, but I’m gonna be like—Teach, what do you call it in college when you sit in a class, but don’t get credit?”
“Audit,” says Mr. Ward. “But you can’t actually audit a class in high school, Tyrone.”
“No? Well, it sounds cool. Anyway, Mr. Ward gave me a special pass so I can drop in whenever I don’t actually need study hall to study. Guess I’ll be doing my homework at home!”
That got me a laugh.
“So listen, y’all heard a little bit about Open Mike already, right? Well, last year, we had it for the first time. It all started when Teach did this lesson about the Harlem Renaissance. To me and my homey Wesley, the lesson was all blah-blah-blah until Teach started reading poetry. Sorry, Teach, but it’s true.
“Teach read this one poem that made me think of rap, which I know something about, seeing as how I gots mad rhyming skills myself and know how to tell a story with a beat, you feel me? So I asked Mr. Ward if I could read one of my raps. A couple other kids had poems they wanted to read, too. So Mr. Ward started this regular Open Mike poetry reading in class, and next thing we know, kids from all over the school are practically busting down the door to get in on the action.”
“A slight exaggeration,” says Mr. Ward.
“Well, okay. But a lot of kids were getting passes to come to our room whenever we were doing Open Mike, and that ain’t no lie.
“What I loved best about it was getting to know everybody. I mean, before Open Mike, we were all in our own separate little groups, thinking we were so different from each other. But when people started sharing who they were through their poetry, turned out we were more alike then we were different. Black, White, Puerto Rican—it didn’t matter. Truth is truth, and everybody bleeds red.
“The kids in that class? They are all my peeps now. And they helped me believe in myself, in my dreams of what I could be. Bet you didn’t know poetry could do all that, huh?
“Y’all should look around the room, check out the people you’re sitting next to. You might think you know who some of them are, what they’re about. You’ve got no clue. By the end of a semester doing Open Mike, you will.
“Cool? Okay. Let’s get this thing started! Who wants to go first? I’d read one of my poems, but I don’t want to show you up.”
Everybody laughs, which is exactly what I wanted.
“No, I’m just kidding. I’ll get the ball rolling. After that, the mike’s all yours.
“Oh! And one more thing: At the end of the semester, there’s gonna be a poetry slam, Team Boyz against Team Girlz, so get ready for a little competition. And you know the Boyz are gonna crush it. It’s throwdown time, people!”
by Tyrone Bittings
you think a poem
ain’t nothing but
a reason for a song.
I hear you, but you’re wrong.
A poem can split skin
and let the blood run red.
A poem can turn the clock back,
help you crack the code of you.
A poem can strip away fear,
leave a messed-up mind clear
to understand what’s going on
deep inside the heart,
the one part
of our world
where we can maybe make some sense,
since, suddenly, unnatural disasters
crash the nightly news
on instant replay.
High crime and Homeland Insecurity
are the order of the day.
rap and rhyme is one way
to strap on your own power,
at least for an hour.
So slide a pen in your holster,
lock and load whatever
words you choose.
Use them to cry, to shout,
Just step up, step up to the mike
and let your truth fly, loud,