As a poet in the schools, I see just under 200,000 kids every school year. I start out each session by asking the same question: “How many of you would consider yourselves to be a poet?” At the second grade level, you’ll see every hand shoot to the sky like they’re trying to grab a cloud and squeeze it dry, but by the time that I get to a room filled with juniors in high school, I’d be lucky if I saw five hands.
And I ask you today, how many of you would consider yourselves to be a poet? My point exactly. You see, I have to investigate this, because what else is a poet but a dreamer with a pencil, a strapped scribe stretching stories, the voice of the voiceless, an iniquity avenger accounting accuracy, but most of all: the exclusive author of their own story, controlling order with imagination, again and again. I was taught this by my grandmother, Marilee Roberts Mays. See, it’s third grade, family genealogy project, Southeastern Aurora. I am one black kid in a sea of white kids.
We are learning about who our grandparents’ grandparents are. I’m sitting next to my best friend, Kate Deputy. She is my best friend because we share the same birthday: Earth Day. I can recall days going out on recess and looking at the great lawn and going like this and then staring at each other and saying, “Look what we grew.” Yeah, we were weird kids, and we loved projects like this. And Kate flips the page and discovers that in her Dutch ancestry she has royalty, and I looked over at her and said, “Kate, you know what that means, right?” She said, “What?” I said, “You’re a princess, like a real live princess!” I told the whole class, “Kate’s a princess, Kate’s a princess!” and we laughed, you know? We laughed like kids laugh at that point in time. Meanwhile, my teacher, Miss Chambers, the lady who taught me poetry and how to country two-step, is sitting in the corner of the room looking like she is auditioning for a first date.
She’s nervous. She walks over to me, very slow and sulky, like she’s late for school for the last time without her hall pass. She pulls me aside and says, “Jovan, I’m not sure how to tell you this, but due to poorly kept records during slavery, we can’t find your history.” I said, “Miss Chambers” She said, “What Jovan?” I said, “What’s slavery?” She said, “Well, it’s this period in time when people with skin color like yours had to do things against their will.” I said, “Ms Chambers” She said, “What Jovan?” I said, “What’s will?” She couldn’t answer my question.
For the next 40 minutes, I sat in the back of class while the rest of my classmates found their “Eureka!” moments in their history. I didn’t know whether to scream or to cry. This might be the first time I realized I was black, and that black meant different. I stormed home from school that day, an angry little boy, to my house. My father, who’s a large blue-collar man, is sitting at the kitchen table. I strip off my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpack, I throw it at him as hard as I can; I said, “Dad, why didn’t you tell me?” He said, “Tell you what?” “Why didn’t you tell me that we don’t have any history?” He said, “Come on Jovan, you know I grew up in a house where the first black person owned a mortgage in New York City.” I said, “Nuh uh, we’re slaves Dad, which means that we did things against our will. I don’t know what will is, but it’s not good.”
My dad couldn’t answer me, so I stormed up the stairs and went to my room, and did what I got so accustomed to doing at that age: I tucked myself into my toy box, I grabbed the phone, and I called Queens, New York City, to speak to my grandma. I said, “Nana, why didn’t you tell me?” She said, “First of all, you can’t be throwing your backpack at your father like that!” I said, “I know grandma.”
“But today was a hard day.” She said, “I know, and we probably should’ve told you. But I have a question for you, Jovan.” And I’ll never forget this question; my grandmother asked me, “Jovan, what’s your favorite dinosaur?” And in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “Grandma, what the hell does this have to do with anything?”
She says, “Seriously, answer the question!”
I’m like, “Grandma, it’s not funny; serious stuff happened at school.”
“Answer the question!”
I said, “Okay,” every bit of, you know, third grade, Jurassic Park, black boy was like, “I love the velociraptor.”
And she said, “Jovan, who’s to say that you’re not part velociraptor then?”
I said, “This doesn’t make sense; I’m a boy, that’s a dinosaur. I don’t know where you’re going; it doesn’t make any sense.”
She said, “Come on, Jovan, work with me. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?”
I said, “Vanilla ice cream with cherries in it.”
She said, “Who’s to say you’re not vanilla ice cream with cherries in it?”
I said, “Um, but I’m a boy. That’s ice cream.”
She said, “Come on, Jovan, work with me. What is your favorite part of nature? Do you love the oceans? Do you love the rivers?”