Education of the Soul: Coming of Age with Poetry

(Chase Manze)

(Chase Manze)

whispers of Myers played in my dreams once

utters of black baptist purity

melodic translucence

the organ, how chords

swayed, sways


the suede of

burgundy carpet erodes

stitches off pastor’s stacy adams

shoes, grown folk revive lost essence

through formulated groovings

the tappings of feets…

- AMINA, Mamadou Yattassaye

Liberation and therapy. The motifs manifested themselves once he introduced me to the delicacy of the pen. Subtle yet potent, I’d never imagined how that flimsy, ceramic material would encompass the ink that would propel my stories.

I reminiscence and my nostalgia always reverts back to that room. Room 305. The aesthetic of that KIPP:STAR class stored the creative foundation. 7th grade. Mr. Raysor. English. Rays of Harlem sun peek into the midday session. I remember how the beams played hopscotch with the yellow-themed walls, sprinkled with tangerine-tinted “Work Hard. Be Nice” quotes. The aura of Luther Vandross or Maze illuminated 20 Kippsters, melodies gleaming the purple KIPP:STAR embroidery stitched on our uniforms. All the class desks, stacked in parallel from back to front. Chairs filled with eager students, focus directed toward the man in the front of the room.

The layout of the desks were ironic in contrast to the man himself; Mr. Raysor was never one for structure. He never believed in teaching his students the NYC common core curriculum verbatim. He wanted to instill intellectual thought, find passageways to stimulate our minds. We were concealed gems, buried under the Harlem soil. But, in his bright yellow cardigan and grey slacks, Mr. Raysor unearthed the life out of us. He embarked everyday on a mission. He was going to empower his youth. His way.

The essence of his classroom. It was something different. The only place, other than my Malian section-8 household, where I didn’t have to compromise myself for survival. We, New York youth, inherited survival tactics from birth, inhaling the airs of gang paraphernalia, project buildings, mother cries, and small caskets. Harlem trapped me amidst youthful paranoia. But class was a cultivated safe haven; a reroute from the hysteria of Harlem. I remember not wanting to leave, comfortably nurtured with the daily dosage of creative outlet. Harlem’s dystopia could not shine through the window shutters. Mr. Raysor defused all that. Even if that sentiment only lasted an hour.

The rich citrus of poetry in language sweetened his curriculum. I was introduced to W.E.B. Dubois’ Double Consciousness, to Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. He showed how the ability of language can elevate one’s state. How one’s words can intersect the spatial plane in which we coexist, manifesting their wrinkles in time.

For the first time in my life, I had something that centered myself. I could walk the streets of Harlem, removed from fear.

These were my first sightings of beauty, textualized. I was both awed and envious of this phenomenon. These were black authors writing poems that resonated with all pockets of my life. Yet their views projected, in my 12-year old mind, sprinkles of acceptance, of boldness. Of growth. Within my twelve years, I found nothing but complacency in my fear, dwelling in melancholy. I envied those authors’ freedom. I wanted my pains to elevate outside of my interiority. I wanted to establish my mark, my wrinkle in time. I just wanted to be heard.

And so I tried my hand in writing. I bought a 9” x 7” composition notebook from the 99-cent store and started dabbling in writing poems. I tried writing about the paranoia of walking into project buildings. My young, stupid, romanticized 12-year old love confessions. Whatever emotions felt compelling at the moment. And to be quite frank, they were trash. Definitely.

But I felt my words stem, extensions of my pain, insecurities, and wishes. Mr. Raysor’s safe haven expanded from the classroom into my journal pages. For the first time in my life, I had something that centered myself. I could walk the streets of Harlem, removed from fear. I couldn’t define what sparked it, either, this sentimental sensation whenever I placed my pen onto the canvas. And I got addicted. It was my release. My weapon.

From the moment I bought that notebook, my days and nights consisted of daily jottings. I could never detach myself from it. The notebook came along my travels. Any hiatus from the pen almost felt like a withdrawal. That feeling also came with the occasional “Papa, get your ass out that damn room!” from my mother though, for sure. But it was okay. She didn’t understand what I was cultivating amongst those pages. Really no one could.

That notebook and I shared mutual understandings; unconditional love. It took responsibility in carving my lenses. As I continued to delve into the art of poetry, I learned early to accept the realities of my adolescence. But I also learned to push past it, to visualize the beauty, the grotesque, and every in-between. I could mourn over close friends dying and parallel that to echoes of Apollo’s Amateur Night ring through Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Life and death danced in poetic tango. It was the words that cleared the world up for me.

And to this day, that sentiment holds dear to my heart. Writing for eight years of my life now, my love for poetry has evolved into different mediums—spoken word, hip hop, R&B. But whenever I trace the genealogy, the ancestry for my writing always commences with room 305. Mr. Raysor was the catalyst. I attribute facets of who I am today to him and his teachings. From all the class sessions. For planting creative freedom into the Harlem youth. For putting a notebook and pen in my hand for life.

I was thinking about something the other day. As I struggle to navigate the prospect of my future, it daunted me--an alternative reality of stopping my writing in its entirety. Comprising myself for a standard 9-5 job. So, I made a promise to myself; no matter what comes to fruition from my poetry, music, anything, I will continue to keep writing. Simply because I know that, in the end, the syllables that create the words I use will forever be documented under my story.

There’s a beautiful cadence that resonates with me in that.