Tymmarah Anderson, 17, said she first learned of a close friend’s recruitment into a street gang when the two were sitting in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru. 

“I could see him changing — his attitude and the way he talked,” she said. Anderson is a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School and an accomplished member of its Spoken Word Club. 

Much of her material, she said, is informed by her life. One of her favorite poems was spun from that drive-thru encounter with her close friend and a documentary she saw about the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram — two instances of young men of color being forced to live out their lives in double-bind, lose-lose scenarios. 

“Some of those people in that terrorist group are not there necessarily by choice,” Anderson said. “The government says either you’re with us or you’re with them. There’s just no way for them to be safe and so I compared that to some of our African-American men in Chicago and how there is no choice. It’s either the gang or [else]; you’re not safe either way.”

Could she recite the poem? 

Anderson, taken a bit by surprise, paused to remember the opening stanzas, her fingers expertly scrolling over her smartphone screen, a brief mission of digital reconnaissance. She laughed somewhat nervously as she searched for the words.

“I can’t even think of it on the spot,” she said. “Geez — I’ve said it thirty-thousand times.”

“If she can’t remember it, I can always do it for her,” said fellow poet Charles Donaldson, 16, the words seared in his memory. So did Peter Kahn, the OPRF English teacher who founded the Spoken Word Club in 1999. Since then, Kahn has transformed the club into a full-blown curriculum worthy of study.  

Kahn began reciting Anderson’s poem, called “Terrorist,” before the senior asserted her ownership (“I got this …”) and, in the stylized, syrupy staccato clip unique to slam poetry, began to exhale the opening lines: 

“You are dead if you say yes / You are dead if you say no / Are you Boko Haram? / Women watch as their husbands are packed into trucks like prison bars / In 2002, the Nigerian government declares Boko Haram terrorists / They send officers to shake villages like maracas, search for anyone with the stench of terrorism humming under their breath / Sometimes their skulls battered for everyone to watch / Sometimes officers take them to their bases, whisper welcome to your death house …”

The poem, Kahn said, focused his mind on the possible similarities between the survival predicament of Anderson’s childhood friend — the son of a preacher, raised in the south suburbs, who attended a private school yet ended up in a gang — and the Nigerian terrorists. 

“I learn things about individual students and I also learn things about different perspectives on what’s going on in society,” Kahn said. “Tamyrrah’s piece in particular about Boko Haram and making that connection was something that was maybe in the back of my head. She brought it to the forefront.” 

Kahn’s Spoken Word students have just wrapped up their spring showcase, Anderson’s last. This April, National Poetry Month, has been busy for the students, who have performed everywhere from the University of Chicago’s Logan Center to Magic Tree Bookstore here in town. 

Last month, OPRF made it to the team semifinal round at Louder Than A Bomb, described in media reports as the largest youth poetry festival in the world. The internationally-recognized event is hosted each year in Chicago by the literary organization Young Chicago Authors (YCA). 

“Louder Than a Bomb not only gives us a better sense of what people in Chicago are going through, it gives adults a sense of what teens are going through, our viewpoints on things, how intelligent we are and that we want to be taken seriously,” said Donaldson.

Adam Levin, 25, a Spoken Word teaching assistant and OPRF alumnus, said the school’s poetry program, and poetry as a medium of expression itself, infused him with the same kind of empowerment Donaldson described.

“I didn’t have a creative outlet when I was younger,” Levine said. “I was a really angry, insecure kid and the one thing I knew I was really good at was poetry and rapping. I saw it as one of the few worthwhile things I could do and eventually I grew to love it.”

Seniors Marlena Wadley, 17, and her best friend Autumn Carson, 17, are so close, their classmates say they’re more like sisters than friends.

Could each of them recite one of their poems? 

“My poem is called ‘Trees,'” said Wadley the shy one. “There is an apple tree stretched in my grandmother’s backyard … um, dang, I forgot …”

“She says our …” Carson continues, completing Wadlui’s lyric from memory before her bosom buddy quietly picked the verse back up.

“She says our bloodline has been trophied on these arms / That the apples in her lawn were scattered tears bled from Negro eyes.”

Carson’s grandmother was a member of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. She was on her way to worship when a bomb exploded in September 1963, laying waste four little girls. 

Carson’s poem, “Bomb Sparks,” recalls that particular moment of her grandmother’s experience in the Deep South.

“She remembers how white her dress was / Like white men cloaked in whispers / Like flames sparking a wooden cross / Grandma was raised in the church.”

With their high school experiences winding down, some of the seniors have begun to focus on lives outside of poetry. Both Wadlui and Carson plan on going into journalism. Anderson said she’s looking to study computer science.

“But I plan on writing forever,” she said. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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