A group of talented young poets has emerged at my school, Life Academy, over the last three years. They call themselves “Rapid Fire.” When they speak, there is heat, and their words do catch. They’ve met critical success in district and area slam competitions. This year, the team placed second in the preliminary Unified District Poetry Slam sponsored by Youth Speaks and went on to place second in the finals. Not only are their words deliberately beautiful, but their messages can transform and teach tolerance.
At a recent “spoken word” event, senior Monica Mendoza performed her poem Faggot. With steady determination backed up by thoughtful research, Mendoza explained why people should never use the word. Her crescendo invoked the names of young gay men who lost their lives because of their sexuality. “Every time you use the word faggot…tell me if you hear Bobby Griffith’s prayers begging for God to forgive him for being gay/ tell me if you heard the truck smash him to death…/ tell me if you hear the fence rattling after Matthew Shepard was tied and tortured.”
Her peers inspired Mendoza to write this poem. She was hanging out with immature boys who constantly used the word. “It really annoyed the hell out of me,” she said, “especially because around that time a friend had just come out to me but wanted to keep it a secret. I know he feels uncomfortable when they say that word, and I’m pretty sure that there's a lot of other gay men that feel that way as well.”
Providing LGBT-inclusive curriculum should be common. Discussing gay issues and having teachers who are “out” can combat homophobia. But students have leverage to shift the culture in ways that no teacher-initiated movement can. Mendoza felt compelled to advocate for gay men because she noticed a double standard in school culture. “I feel like [gay men are] looked down on more then lesbians,” Mendoza said. “I know there are people that find two girls making out ‘sexy’ and freak out seeing two men kissing.”
Similarly, Rapid Fire poets Bryant Phan and Marielle Garcia wanted to address young men in their poem called Player Boys. Like Mendoza’s piece, Player Boys is a call for change. In tandem, they urged young men to alter their opinions about women. “These women you toy with are not Barbies/ They are daughters and sisters/ Humans that you can’t claim as property/ Their bodies are queendoms/ and you are not royal.”
Phan, now a senior, is the founding member of Rapid Fire. He transferred to Life Academy as a sophomore and quickly formed the poetry group. “I wanted to expose the school to spoken word [poetry] and encourage the student body to use its voice,” he said. “Spoken word has equipped me with so many helpful tools, and I wanted to do the same for other students.” Phan appeared on HBO’s Brave New Voices.
Through poetry Mendoza, Phan, and Garcia have found their political voice. “I learned to get involved in social issues that affect me, like immigration and gangs,” Mendoza said. “Through poetry I realized that I wanted to major in women and gender studies for college. It's just completely transformed me and helped me grow.”
As these three seniors leave Life Academy for college, they gift the school the legacy of poetry, the message of change. They also leave big footsteps to be filled by their younger classmates, the next generation of poets.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.
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