The boy can hardly look up from the page. He doesn’t want to remember that thirty eyes are staring at him, so he ignores them. Focusses on the tremor of paper in his earthquake hand. His right leg an uncontrollable jerking of muscle and bone. Sweat gathers on his brow though the room is still early morning cold. He slurs the words as they tumble from his mouth. No one cares. He hardly even makes sense at times. No one cares. This is poetry. It is one of the bravest performances I have ever seen.
The boy launches into his story and I know it all too well. It is one I have heard countless times before. It is punches and names and harsh words and the inevitability of feeling small in the face of all the supposed ‘normal’ people. He pushes his story out of his mouth like it never belonged there in the first place. Like it wasn’t meant to be his story. Like somehow he always knew he was larger than the box that it held him in. Yet it seems only now that he is able to recognise this. So he recognises this. He is angry. Angry at them. Angry at the world. Angry at his condition. He is autistic. He tells us that his brain doesn’t quite work right. He tells us that he wants to be normal. He tells us of the countless times people felt it their prerogative to tell him that he wasn’t.
His story ends on a note of defiance. I picture a mouse staring into the face of a cat. Perhaps even scarface claw, the baddest cat from my sons picture book. I see the mouse stand up on two legs defiant and proud and with a bellow of a squeak from the mouse the cat looks shocked and surprisingly scared and suddenly bolts in the opposite direction. The boy finishes the poem about his life. His cat demons, they bolt in the opposite direction. The class is dead silent. It is a moment no one wanted to break. Something profound had just occurred and everyone in the class room knows this. It is tangible. Sacred.
The silence breaks. As if on cue. As if timed to perfection. Every single person erupts into a barrage of applause. The boy looks up from his paper confused. A mouse staring now into headlights. He is not sure what to do. Where to go. So he just stands there and a huge smile breaks through. Ear to ear. He smiles wide and the class love this all the more and they cheer even louder and I stand at the back of the room and everything that I do becomes worthwhile once more. This is poetry.
The teacher tells me that the boy does not write in class. He does not participate. Not like this. This is unheard of. That he crafted his whole story into a poem and stood out the front of the class in this all-boys school and delivered it like this. This is a miracle. This is poetry.
The boy tells me that he has never told anybody his story in his life before. He has not told people of the years of bullying at previous schools. He has not told people of his fight for a normal life in the face of his autism. I tell him just how brave I think he is. I tell him that others need to hear his story. He agrees. The bell goes. He walks out of the room and I never see him again. This is poetry. This is my life. School after school after school. Story after story after story. Lame metaphor after cliched simile after just another rhyming couplet. And I love it all.
There is a rush that comes with standing naked (metaphorically) on a stage and bearing your soul to the world. There is a rush and a catharsis and a healing and a feeling like you could do anything. This is nothing compared to the moment when you see a kid you have been helping to find their words step-up and breakthrough like this boy did. It pales in comparison. This is poetry.
I remember the girl who wept at her Christian school friends for how they treated gay people. I remember the Year 11 boy who broke down as he told his all-boy macho classmates about his mothers condition. I remember the girl who told us of her rape. I remember the scared one who couldn’t even look up at me when we began and as we finished a few days later she was literally screaming her poem to the world. I remember the one with pink hair and poetic words that trampled upon my own. I remember the tears from so many teenagers pooling heavy upon the floor. I remember so many moments when the silence came. When a rowdy class of Year 8’s are brought mute in the face of their classmates bravery and vulnerability. I remember the breakthroughs. I remember the defiance. I remember the steel-toothed determination. I remember it all. I remember the tears that I have cried as I listen to story after story after story.
This is poetry.
This is why I do what I do.