Spoken Word: Nowhere to Hide


I can’t believe what I just saw, heard, and experienced. Standing in front of me is a seventeen-year-old young man who, for the longest time, considered himself worthless, dreamless, lifeless. From my seat in the back of the class, I sit for a moment in awe. Having to give this student a critique on his first “spoken word” performance, a weekly assignment for my English class where students perform their own poetically creative pieces, I am briefly at a loss for words, for there is none that could do justice to what I am feeling. None, but one…Inspiration.

“You are a Poet, in the truest sense of the word,” I hear myself say. Now finished with his recitation, he stands in front of the class, awkward and trembling. As I look down at my hands, I find that I am trembling too, but for different reasons. I close my eyes and realize that I am in the presence of true greatness, of a prodigy. And I am trembling.

“Where did that come from?” another student asks. For, up until he opened his mouth and allowed this volcano of truth to erupt from his soul, he had always presented himself as nervous, insecure and inferior, albeit intelligent, with an inability to even make eye contact, let alone sustain it.

“I don’t know,” he answers, “I guess that’s what I’ve always wanted to say.”

I relish in this moment, as I believe that this is how it must have felt to first experience the genius of Mozart, DaVinci, Angelou. As if I just struck gold, my first instinct is to selfishly protect the treasures of his words. But the more it sinks in, the more I selflessly want others to experience this teen’s talent as well. My mind is racing with how to make that happen.

School performance? No, for I don’t think the majority in attendance would understand or appreciate his words.

YouTube video? Nah, too many would comment negatively based on their own close-minded attitudes.

And then it hits me…Open Mic Night in Northampton. What better audience to share his space than those who will also be airing themselves out on the stage. What a sense of connection, of community this kid would feel for once in his life. To recognize and accept the fact that he’s an Artist, a Writer, an Individual. No longer confined to playing the role of the Hermit, the Loser, the Nobody. I have big dreams for this kid.

Beaming up at him, I ask, “How do you feel about your performance?”

He’s looking down at the floor as he allows a small smile to slip through the cracks of his wall, and he quietly responds, “Pretty Good.”

I am so conflicted with my emotions. I am over-the-moon grateful to have been a spectator to this…growth. I am shocked by the depth of his words and the poetic artistry he possesses. And I am dismayed by the fact that over the course of seventeen years, this was the first time he had put his reflective words on paper, and his voice to his words.

With tears of pride filling my eyes I recognize my part in facilitating this unforgettable moment, and I wonder, “Could it be that all it takes to allow these walled-in, untrusting and scared kids to blossom is to offer them an opportunity to reflect and write creatively and poetically without constricting boundaries, and then ask them to perform their pieces in front of me and their peers? (Flash-forward two years and I can now tell you that, Yes, that IS all it takes.)

Back in the classroom I feel blessed, accomplished. As a teacher, I daily distribute the seeds of my experiences, simply hoping that one day the students will truly tap in and allow themselves to bloom and grow into healthy, responsible, and happy individuals.
I developed this weekly spoken word assignment as an exercise in the art of Speaking Truth, honestly and effectively, and the kids are taking the bait. They are smiling, laughing, shouting and crying as they put their voices to the emotionally stirring words that they themselves have written. There is nowhere to hide when performing Spoken Word, and this young man just proved that point once again.

I allow everyone a few more moments to silently reflect upon what we just shared together. I recognize that his performance just changed everything, for we have all just been raised to a higher plane. I recognize that I have once again become the student in my own classroom.

Breaking the silence, I gently speak out to him. “Look at me.”

He’s still focused on the floor, but as he lifts his gaze, I lock him with my eyes and simply add, “Thank you.”


Jeff Winston ♦ Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom

Jeff Winston writes our monthly column, Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom, illustrating the life lessons that he taught, and just as often learned, both in and out of the classroom. Jeff has lived in Easthampton since 2007, after moving up from Philadelphia with his wife, Alli, and their 3 dogs, Murphy, Zoey and Maggie. Jeff has a private tutoring business, Tap Your Truth, specific to enhancing writing and study skills, focusing on empowering individuals through their own written and spoken words. Jeff writes a blog called Better Out Than In…, a place to read creative expressions of his life’s experiences, samples of his student’s work, and tidbits that will enable readers to gain insight into their own lives.

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