Before a group of Heights High School students met poet Taylor Mali via video conference on Tuesday, they watched some of his spoken-word performances:
I’m not your mother,
I’m not your father,
I’m not your jailer,
I’m not your torturer,
I’m not your biggest fan in the whole wide world
Even though sometimes I act like all of these things.
I know you can do these things that I make you do,
That’s why I make you do them.
I’m a teacher, and that’s what we do.
Mali, a world-famous slam poet based in New York, used to teach middle school and high school. Now he’s on a quest to create 1,000 teachers – a goal he set for himself in June 2000, when he put his teaching career on hold – by inspiring them through spoken word.
As of this week, he is up to 928.
On Tuesday his quest took him to a video screen in the Heights auditorium, where he talked with about 100 students about poetry, performance, inspiration and education.
Heights teacher Bryan Akins arranged the video conference as part of a poetry lesson for his sophomore English class.
“I wanted to show them the power of the spoken word,” Akins said. “That one person can inspire hundreds or thousands of people to do all kinds of amazing things.”
Mali began the conference by reading his poem “The Moon Exactly As It Is Tonight:”
“So too, tonight, a cloud has passed before the moon in such a way,” he read, “that were I able to describe it exactly how it is, no one would believe me.”
That line is an example of poetic license, Mali told the students, of “lying in order to get closer to the truth.”
Mali’s poems, inspired by classrooms and performed Def Jam-style, with occasional expletives and obscene gestures, have earned applause from educators and performance artists. (To watch him perform or read his work, search Mali’s name on YouTube or visit his poetry blog, DefinitelyBeautiful.posterous.com.)
His popular “What Teachers Make,” an homage to the nobility of teaching, has garnered more than 4 million hits and comments such as “I wish I had a teacher like this.”
At Heights on Tuesday, 16-year-old Dustin Garceau called Mali and his poetry “freaking awesome.”
“He inspired me to write,” Garceau said. “Just the things he says, the way he says it. … My heart almost stopped.”
One student asked Mali how he feels on stage, performing in front of hundreds of people. Another asked how he handles writer’s block.
“I don’t know, man. It’s the toughest thing,” he said. “Just start writing. … Sit down and write even when you don’t feel like it and even though you don’t know what you’re going to say.”
Mali said he grew up loving books and writing. His mother was children’s book author Jane L. Mali. His father, a businessman, marked special occasions by reciting original poems at family gatherings.
His father’s heartfelt verse was “like Dr. Seuss meets Robert Frost,” Mali said, smiling. “I came from a family where we worshipped the written word.”
Heights senior Sharon Nichols, who wants to become a teacher, left the Skype conference with Mali feeling energized and reinspired.
“I want to be able to make an impression on my kids the way he does,” Nichols said. “He keeps it real.”