By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
I can’t think of a post I would want to write more.
Close to a month ago I was contacted by Brenda Wastasecoot, an Aboriginal teacher and regular reader of my site, to give a talk to youth she works with at George Brown College.
With FaceBook being one of our main forms of communication these days I found this message in my inbox:
I am looking for speakers for my high school class this term: Sept-Dec. Would you be interested in coming to visit us and speaking about your life and your work? There would be an honorarium of course. So please let me know soon, if you’re interested.
The class tends to have a lot of boys as they seem to be the ones who have the most struggles in mainstream schools. This is an Alternative high school where the boys are a mix of white and Black from low-income homes.
Boys with struggles in mainstream school systems? That was me!
Boys of colour from low-income households? That was me!
Alternative school? They were the last to accept me after being kicked out of two regular high schools; and they (2 alternative schools) ended kicking me out too!
My answer: I’m honoured!
Before giving talks I like meeting with the people who bring me in to speak. Due to clashing schedules Brenda and I talked on the phone. I asked questions and took notes:
– 25 to 30 youth
– WRITTEN OFF by the system
– at RISK
– Talk about RACISM, struggles with IDENTITY, social BARRIERS
I had the info I needed. Now it was time to prepare for the reading. There are several things I take into consideration and several things I do before speaking to peoples and giving readings and presentations. It’s a process; one that I take seriously and that I have broken down in several posts prior to this one:
Before getting to the class I told myself that I knew these youth. Why? Because I was one of them. We may not be from the same cultural backgrounds but I knew that they were experiencing similar things thatI had went through. Of course, Brenda’s description of them was key in me knowing all of this. And even though high school is in my past I can remember it like it was yesterday.
I reminded myself that this talk was not about me, it was about the youth.
I asked myself, what do I want these youth to take away from my talk?
I prayed to Creator for the talk to go well.
Brenda was waiting for me in the lobby of the school. We smiled, said our “hello” and grabbed the elevator to the class. I used the washroom before going in; I wanted to be able to give the youth my undivided attention. Relieving myself helps with that. And I do the mirror technique while washing my hands.
Once walking into the class I felt at home. The youth were loud, happy, somewhat rambunctious, and many were of colour.
“Who’s this guy?” said a student in a loud hostile tone.
His buddies laughed alongside him.
The student who asked the question was me many years ago. And his buddies were my buddies. They were the tough ones of the bunch. If I didn’t get their respect my talk would be done in less than five minutes.
Brenda introduced me and I took over via re-introducing myself and asking everyone to say their name and tell me something positive about themselves, something they like about themselves. Ice breakers are a good thing. They calm people down and get the room quiet. And this ice breaker had the youth remind themselves that there are positives about them, that not all in their lives is negative.
The youth had the option to pass or participate.
Three youth passed.
After the ice breaker I shared a bit of my story: high school dropout, former car thief and drug dealer, two very short stints in jail, love for my mother, no father, friends come and gone, friends in prison, university experiences, claiming myself a writer, the person I was before them that day.
As I spoke I looked around the room. Faces looked back at me. Some of the youth were leaning in with their eyes locked on me as I sat on a desk. Others sat back relaxed (the cool guys) but still lent me their ears and eyes.
The talk was going well.
Their was a mutual respect happening.
Their was an energy that literally circulated the room because Brenda had us sit in a circle: a very Indigenous way of sharing and learning.
The “Who’s this guy?” energy died and a positive energy of community was born.
Following Brenda’s request for talks on identity I read one of my essays, Embracing My Identity: Reflections on Jorge Gonzalez Camarena’s Painting ‘El Abrazo’ published in the Kenyon Review Winter 2010.
Knowing that many of these youth were poor, of colour, and written off I decided to read an essay, The Bull Pen, about my second time going to jail which was published in Descant 150: Writer In Prison:
Much of my talks incorporate art with politics: poetry and the history of colonization that has lead to many of today’s oppressive realities. Both these essays combine all this.
After reading I asked the group what they wanted to hear.
The student who said, “Who’s this guy?” said, “I want to hear some poetry.”
I read some of my favourite poems from Not Vanishing by Chrystos:
There Is A Man Without Fingerprints
In The Brothel Called America
Now it was time for them to share.
“I want to hear from you,” I said.
Guess who was the first to speak up and read a poem? Yes, the, “Who’s this guy?” student.
He searched his phone for the poem, stood up in front of me, and read out loud. His classmates, teachers, and I gave him a loud applause. Another student shared. And another. Then a young man started to beat box. And then came an unexpected thing of beauty: collaboration. The leader of pack hooked up with beatboxer and combined rhyme with sound. I felt like I was on the block again hearing freestyles and beats.
Brenda looked at me from across the room with amazement.
The loud space I entered an hour earlier was now quiet, respectful, and in sync with each other.
There was a harmony that was physical, emotional, spiritual, and vocal.
Brenda started to wind down the morning by having us go back to how we started: a sharing circle. Students gave feedback on my talk, readings, and what they got out of it. Many shared a feeling of respect for how much I talked about my mother: “I like how you mention your mom a lot,” said one young mother. Another young mother said the same. Then one of the boys shared his connection to me via talking in Jamaican patois: “I like how you love your mumma!” Many of the boys said the same thing. I realized how much I talk about my mom and how much I love her.
Three more things stuck with me, one which answered my original question: what do I want these youth to take away from my talk?
A young woman said she felt inspired to go after her dreams.
“You can do it,” I said.
“I am!” she said.
A younger version of myself spoke to me in Spanish throughout the talk. He had long black hair, brown skin, and baggy clothes. Our eyes locked on each other. He was quiet and chose his words carefully. And his comments showed he not only listened but also understood exactly where I had been and what I was talking about. I felt like I was looking in a mirror: Brown, young, smart, and searching.
Then the student who challenged me the second I entered the room spoke:
I don’t listen to anyone! But you captured me. Thanks.
We ended with smiles, handshakes, and picture taking.
Brenda walked up to me with an ear to ear grin and said, “That was amazing! These kids don’t listen to anybody! Thank you!”
There was a real connection that day. More than any of my previous talks. We sat in a circle, listened, shared, laughed, and started an energy that kept going and going. I saw were I was, they saw where they can go, we saw and made a connection between the two.