Whenever Jesus Govea reads his poem, “The butcher taught me how to high school,” he cringes. Like most writers who have endured a daunting revision process, Govea revisited the piece over the span of three years, going line by line with his editor, who was also his former high school teacher, until it was ready for publication. But apart from that, Govea said he is no longer the same person who wrote that poem, that teenage boy fixated on his body and appearance.
“Throughout high school, I wasn’t really popular,” said the 20-year-old Govea who wrote the poem while a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “I had moved from the west suburbs into that high school, so everyone I knew was kind of gone. … I was kind of a bigger guy at the time, and I was very insecure about my appearance and how I looked.”
Govea remembered even when he began losing the weight, “I still didn’t have that confidence within me.”
It’s easy for him to pick apart the poem; raw honesty sits well with teenage angst. But feelings and critiques aside, the poem carries a different kind of weight now. It holds history. That poem was the first piece he wrote, performed and memorized, introducing him to OPRF’s Spoken Word Club and scoring a spot on the high school’s slam team.
Now that piece has found new life in a book, Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School. Out Feb. 1 through Penguin Random House, Govea is one of over 100 OPRF alumni featured in the anthology, showcasing the impact and influence of the local high school’s spoken word program.
“The piece is pivotal to me becoming who I am now,” said Govea, now a creative-writing student at Columbia College in Chicago. “Without this piece, I wouldn’t have made it to the slam team, and I wouldn’t have found that I could improve my writing and get somewhere with it. Now that I think about it, I owe this piece a lot because it was really a life-changing thing for me at that time.”
Other alumni like Christian Robinson and Micah Daniels, whose poems are also in the upcoming book, shared Govea’s sentiments. The two said they discovered the Spoken Word Club, as well as longtime instructor Peter Kahn, at a time when they were discovering themselves. Like Govea, they felt out of place at OPRF, in their classes or even among friends, but found some solace in the club.
“Spoken word became everything in my life from the moment I left high school,” said Robinson, 28, who teaches spoken word alongside Kahn. It was through the club, he added, that he learned about the power and possibilities of writing.
“You could write poems for a living. You could write raps for a living,” he said. “You could be a teacher who teaches how [to write]. There are so many avenues that opened up, and I don’t think I would have known that had it not been for spoken word just even giving me that love for writing. It gave my love for writing a home.”
Daniels and Jesus Govea’s younger sister, Abby Govea, said the Spoken Word Club gave them a voice. It was the place where Daniels began exploring and bracing her identity as a young Black woman and where Abby Govea became comfortable talking about her anxiety. The club, Daniels noted, brings together the “weirdos” — people from all walks of life who can feel free to be vulnerable and express their world views without judgment.
“You’re just faced to see these different people and take in how they’re feeling,” said Daniels, 20, and a neuroscience major at the University of Illinois Chicago. “If you really open yourself up to that environment, you can become such a greater person.”
That’s the thing: There’s a creative outlet for everyone, said Abby Govea, another featured poet in the anthology. And for the 18-year-old, that too is writing.
Borrowing a line for her poem “Why write?,” she explained: “And inscribed the cemented sentence / It’s no joke that poetry is the new best medicine.”