You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Those words echoed from a video screen in a quiet Manual High School language arts classroom on Wednesday afternoon, the last day of Maya Angelou’s life and the last in a year of tumult for Manual, which is facing the latest in a series of attempts to transform the school.
“This poem embodies what Manual is,” the teacher, Ben Butler, told his students. As the world mourns Angelou, Butler told them, consider her words and your own surroundings.
Manual High School has risen many times, undergoing radical shifts with the end of busing and subsequent overhauls that lead to Manual’s reboot in 2007 that attempted to transform the school’s low performance. Angelou’s poem, Butler said, resonated so much with Manual’s community that it was read at the school’s very first graduation after its closure and re-opening.
The students in this class may see yet another overhaul enacted before they graduate. This year, they watched the school’s principal be dismissed for the schools’ poor performance and have observed an increasingly-contentious fight over the future of the school.
“The message is to be able to overcome,” one student said of the message they found in Angelou’s poem. But the weight of the moment dimmed in comparison with the moment they all anticipated: sharing their own work.
Students at the school have fought hard to have a say in what shape Manual will take and that activist spirit was apparent in many of the poems they shared. One girl was so anxious to share her poem her hand shot up soon after Butler finished speaking and she asked to read her poem twice — a request Butler granted. She read:
“I’m a 15 year-old girl trying to make changes in a society that won’t accept it…I may look like one person, speak as one person, listen with one set of ears but inside I am a million people.”
Another student, Delilah Martinez, wrote in response to one of Angelou’s own influences, Langston Hughes:
“You say, ‘let America be America again. Don’t you mean, ‘bring back the America that it never used to be?’” (To see her full poem, see here.)
It wasn’t all social justice poetry, though. Many of these sophomores, impatiently waiting out their last days as underclassmen, took the opportunity to explore common themes of adolescence: first love and its loss, the sense of growing responsibility, and, of course, the knowledge that parents really don’t get it. One student’s poem read:
“Kids drink to wash away their tears, to run and hide. Parents think they get us. But they don’t know how hope dies.”
As class drew to a close, Butler reminded them to keep writing, for their sake and his, when he got them back in his other classes.
“The final thing I hope you take from this and poetry in general, is that your voice matters,” he said. “It counts.”