Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where I teach College Writing I, has more than 13,000 students, including almost 500 veterans. The average student age is 27. More than half are women, and 77 percent are people of color. Forty-four percent receive Pell Grants.
Many are immigrants, from more than ninety-five countries. The languages spoken in the class that wrote these poems include Creole, Spanish, Portuguese (one via Brazil, one via Angola), French and Swahili. The site of Bunker Hill CC, where Charlestown prison once stood, has good progressive credentials. This is where Sacco and Vanzetti were jailed and executed. The prison library was where Malcolm X went to read. The film Good Will Hunting was set here.
This summer I was tracking down a student whose family has been lost in the civil war in Mali. After I wrote a column about hunger on college campuses, Bunker Hill hosted its fourth food bank in three months, an eighteen-wheeler filled by the Greater Boston Food Bank. The food was gone in ninety minutes. Amid all this, two students from here will study at MIT this fall.
As these poems show, Bunker Hill students have plenty of intellect. The best are as bright as any I have encountered in my platinum-spoon life. What’s missing for the students here is seat time to master intellectual and academic skills. They have not read the Western canon by the time they are 18. They have not already written half a dozen research papers in MLA style when they arrive in my class. But they are able to understand the books and write such papers when shown the way.
As with any class, sometimes nothing works. I pulled out Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” as a last resort one day and asked the students to write their own versions, saying only that they may choose a verb other than “singing.” The results the first time astonished me. They still do. My hope is that we can encourage teachers everywhere to steal this assignment and flood the US Capitol with the results. Our hope for America is that whatever crimes we may commit, voices like these will keep bubbling up and send the country soaring.
I Hear America Crying by Chantal Midgette
I hear America crying; the varied sounds I hear;
The young teenager ends her dreams because a newborn child interferes
The widow, mother of four who lost her husband in a war
The woman being abused at home, praying to live life no more
The bullied child at school who is in pain
The Afghan family hoping they’ll be accepted again
The black man on death row for killing his own kind
Too late to turn back time, a brown leather cowl will make him blind