At summer poetry camp, city youngsters in a harsh world give voice to their struggles

`Don't cry about it, write about it ... '

August 17, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

With just over an hour to go before the summer's big poetry slam, all is not going according to plan.

Rain pours, which is good because the temperature is falling, but it's still sweltering inside the century-old church in Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown, where the poetry camp operates without air conditioning. Some kids went home early because of the heat, or didn't come at all. Others are across the street at a library party.

Those remaining are playing Legos or Disney Monopoly, or they're sprawled out on chairs and tables sleeping. Visitors from the nonprofits that fund the camp have left.

At 3 o'clock, Helen Keith goes to the library, rounds up her charges, and files everybody into the "Hall of Fame," a room where the walls are covered with children's portraits and poetry. For one last time this summer, she wants the kids to get their feelings out.

Keith, 43, runs Promoting Children's Voices, a youth poetry project that has been her labor of love for the past decade. Participants get lots of practice reading and writing, and Keith brings college students in to tutor them when those skills are lacking. But she also wants to give the children the tools to express their emotions, to use poetry as a vehicle for relieving what can at times feel like overwhelming stress growing up in the inner city.

On a microphone filled with static, she reads aloud to the 25 children the Langston Hughes poem "Mother to Son," in which a mother speaks to her son about her life's struggles. (Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.) Then, she tells them, they are to write in their journals 10 lines about struggles of their own.

An 11-year-old girl writes in lavender marker.

My struggle is the pain I went through when my brother died. I had to go through that pain for a month it might not mean that much to you but ti mean every thing to me

Her brother died July 10 of kidney failure. He was 18. This is her first week back at camp.

A 12-year-old boy writes in pencil.

My struggle/ Living life with killing/ Not knowing if you're gonna get robbed/ Not knowing if youre gonna live to the next day or if you gonna die/ Life isn't fair most of us know it

It's just what Keith was looking for.

Sometimes, the children's poems are hilarious. One laminated in the Hall of Fame is about flatulence.

Often, though, heartbreak isn't far beneath the surface. During her after-school and summer programs, Keith - a mother of three - gets a lot of poetry about self-hatred. When that happens, she tells the children to find something beautiful about themselves and write it down.

Poetry has been Keith's release from the time she was a child. Her only formal training was from Mr. Dorsey, her sixth-grade teacher at Belmont Elementary School in the 1970s. "Don't cry about it," Mr. Dorsey would say. "Write about it."

She did, about her longing for love, about her frustration that her mother was so strict. A self-professed drama queen, she'd often write letters to vent and leave them on her mother's bed. But she was pregnant by the time she graduated from Walbrook High School, and though she loved to write, she never considered it a viable career option. So at Coppin State University, she pursued her other passion: early childhood education.

She worked at a series of preschools before opening a day care business in her home. Kids started coming by the house and confiding in her. Like Mr. Dorsey, she told them to write.

They did, sprawled out all over her house, and when there were too many of them to fit, officials from the church down the block - St. Paul the Apostle - gave her space to rent.

That was eight years ago, and Keith has been teaching kids how to write poetry ever since. She and Darrin Keith, her husband of 21 years, have dug deep into their own pockets to keep her program afloat without charging the children. To participate in the camp, which includes roller-skating and basketball as well as trips to museums, kids need only to enroll in the public library's summer reading program.

Keith wasn't paid until late last year, when she was selected as one of eight Open Society Institute fellows. The $48,750 she's receiving over 18 months has contributed to buying the children journals, folders, pens and pencils. She has also had financial support the past two years from the nonprofit Tri-Churches Housing, which has covered the cost of supplies, field trips, kerosene heaters and a new floor for the Hall of Fame.

"The fellowship didn't buy me a new car," Keith said. (She and her husband share a 1994 Pontiac Transport SE with a broken window.) "The fellowship didn't move me out of the inner city. It provided stability for the youth."

For the past two years, the church has waived Keith's rent, but it closed as a congregation in March and plans to sell the building by the end of the year. Now, Keith is desperately seeking a new place to operate.

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