BY SARAH MARCUS

This post originally appeared in Luna Luna magazine and is reprinted here with permission. All students named in this essay are at least 18 years of age and have given their consent.

It’s 4:30 and we are sitting around on the floor of the dirty hallway outside of my “cloffice,” which is literally a very small utility closet that I joke about doing yoga in each morning. We are using the paper cutter and several children’s-sized, safe, “microbiotic” scissors, preparing “pocket poems” for National Poetry Month.

I am in charge of posting poems all around the school next week, so I offered extra credit to any seniors in my Creative Writing class who wanted to help. Anthony grabs the paper cutter and insists on cutting too much card stock at one time. He doesn’t cut down in one smooth motion; he’s chopping them up. I keep bugging him about the terrible grinding sound, about the rugged edges and being careful, but he tells me to “relax” because “they look great.”

Dajah and I opt for the kid scissors, and Devonte watches and pretends to do work for another class. The hallways won’t clear out for another hour at least, so people have to step over us as they pass by.

Because of the book we’re reading in my Resistance Writing class, Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, our conversation naturally turns to funny family stories and funerals. We laugh and talk about my “character first” boarding school for delinquents, and why I wasn’t home “growing up” with my sister. I love these moments the most, when we are relaxed and sharing secrets. I spot two of my freshmen making out in the stairwell. I say in my teacher voice, “Okay, less touching, more leaving please,” and, trying to be serious a few moments later, “Come on guys, let’s leave a little room for God.” I chuckle, picking up the poems again, and Dajah says, “What?”

“I’m old now,” I say, “and I finally understand the hell I put my teachers through.”

“Yeah, and you lived at your school!” she says.

“You was bad, Ms. Marcus,” Devonte chimes in.

“Yeah,” I say. “I was.”

Anthony looks up and asks, “What’s the difference between me and you, Ms. Marcus? I mean, besides your graduate degree? Teachers are always saying that… their degree.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You know what I mean!”

“Well, I’m a woman,” I smile. Dajah and Devonte snicker at my jest.

“Forget it…it’s stupid,” he says.

“No, it’s definitely not stupid, and I honestly want to answer your question—I’m just not sure what you’re asking. Can you try to explain it to me?”

“What’s it like to work with a bunch of black kids, Ms. Marcus? You know, urrrrban kids?”

“What do you mean?” I ask. And he says, “Were you scared?”

I think for a moment. I say that I had never been in a situation where I needed to discipline anyone before. That when I taught college and someone wasn’t behaving right and I asked them to leave, they would just leave and go wherever adults go when you kick them out of your classroom. “But I am responsible for you. It’s different,” I say. I’m responsible for keeping you safe—for keeping you in my classroom. I was scared to discipline you, because I didn’t know how.

I tell them a story about my first day teaching high school when, after I asked him to move seats, a very tall male student sneered, “You think you’re the fucking queen of the classroom.” I told them that he went on aggressively like this, standing over me, for what felt like several minutes. How I stood there like a deer in headlights watching, waiting for another teacher to step in and rescue me. How I immediately knew that this was the wrong choice. (I don’t explain to them how this power dynamic felt so impossibly heavy in that moment. How when he said “queen of the classroom,” I heard “white,” and was mortified for a million reasons.)

I tell them how, finally, another teacher did come to my rescue, and after he calmed down, the student apologized. I do not say how eventually, although I still flushed with guilt, I realized that I had forgotten that I was the adult, because in that moment I could only think of my whiteness. I tell them what I learned: if I wanted this student’s respect, I should show up with a handmade crown and give him a hard time for at least two weeks. They laugh. I say, “I have learned to take my job seriously and not myself.” I want to say, I have learned that nothing that I could do, any consequence I might give, would punish you more than you already are every single day.

I’ve developed a good relationship with that student. Around 10:30 a.m., daily, he gives me a high five and asks for the keys to my cloffice.

“How are you today, Ms. Marcus?” he asks.

“I’m great, thanks! How are you?”

“I’m pretty black,” he smiles widely.

In the beginning, this was some sort of test.

“Right bottom drawer,” I say, really as a reminder for him to not snoop around the graded papers on my desk, but he already knows where I keep them. I buy boxes and boxes of granola bars. I ask my parents to help me buy more. They are always gone within days.

I make a decision. I turn back to Anthony and say that I was scared, but that I wasn’t scared of you. I was scared of what’s inside of all the “bandos” (derelict structures). I was scared to walk past the entrances with the police officers in bulletproof vests. I was scared the morning I could see that the lone crosswalk officer had to choose between walking students across the street and dealing with the domestic abuse situation at the house on the corner. The man screaming, “Let me in, you fucking whore,” and “I’ll kill you, bitch.” I was scared that first month of school when there was a double homicide outside of our building, a drug deal gone bad, the bodies found a day later in the yard. When the loudspeaker told us we would not be going into lockdown. When the loudspeaker told us we were safe. When I wanted to tell you that murder in my neighborhood was a movie, was a television show, was an “over there.” I tell him how my heart breaks each time one of our students is mugged, is held at gunpoint, in this neighborhood, because it’s well known in the community that many of our students have iPads from school. I want to tell him that I am scared most of failing you, because you deserve the world. Because I am one person, and I am deeply flawed.

***

“You’re all a bunch of young, pretty white people who think they can just come in here and save the poor black kids,” a female senior tells me in the art room where I am sitting and unconsciously picking up and gluing paperclips, dirt, and salt back onto the already crusty table.

“You’re probably right,” I say. I talk freely of my privilege. Pretending is worse. I wonder out loud how we can provide these desperately needed opportunities to families of modest means without people feeling like we are trying to “save” them.

I try to show my students how we are the same and how we are not. We share our freewrites and poems with each other. We talk about the value of empathy and vulnerability. We create a safe, supportive space. My seniors really get to know their classmates. They feel connected to kids they didn’t get along with before. They let down their guard. They care. I teach my seniors June Jordan and Lucille Clifton, because the only black poet they have ever read is Langston Hughes. I teach them about Nelson Mandela, but only think to do so because he is dead and Maya Angelou wrote a eulogy poem.

After I assign homework, there is the usual cacophony of teeth sucking and exacerbated sighs… “Are you blowing kisses at me?” I ask. “That is so sweet!”

“Ewww, gross. Ms. Marcus that’s just wrong! Uuck!”

“I think it’s beautiful,” I say. “Thank you.”

***

My younger sister, Michelle, comes to visit from L.A. She is an editor at an artsy fashion magazine. I ask her to come in and talk to my students about her job. I know that my girls will fall in love with her and they do. She is all of the girliness that I am not. Sometimes, in the study hall I proctor, one of my senior girls asks to braid my hair. This feels so childish, so foreign, so loving, so uncomfortable. She’s terrible at it, but I would never say so. Everyone teases her for being my favorite, because she is. I let her practice grading all of the freshmen papers even though I have to regrade them all afterwards. Her comments are fantastically blunt. I cross most of them out and write something less antagonistic. I know that she will love my sister, too.

I tell my sister to stay on the main roads, to not follow her GPS, to lock her doors, and to put her purse in the trunk. These are the things I used to do. My boyfriend recently installed a new stereo in my beaten-up 2003 Honda Civic. My car is falling apart. I have electrical tape on my windshield and mustache-themed duct tape on my door handles. My students tease me. My boyfriend asks me to please take my stereo out when I park at school. He makes me promise. I do this faithfully for one month.

I remind Michelle to dress modestly—after all this is a Catholic School—and to bring cookies… a lot of cookies. When she’s on her way here, I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake asking her to come. I wonder if I have the relationship with my students that I think I do. I have seen the wily noncompliance that destroys the moral of many substitute teachers, but this is someone I love, and they love me, right? I have to leave the building to get Michelle. I bring keys because every door on the outside of the entire school is locked to keep our kids safe, and every door inside the school is locked to keep our things—our wallets and phones and computers—safe.

My freshmen girls love Michelle and her outfit—they love her magazine. They love the dresses and the hair and the beautiful pictures, and they all want to hug her. I forgot to warn her about the touching. I tell them how sweet they are and that the other Ms. Marcus might appreciate having some personal space after her long trip. I am someone who has always needed complete trust to be affectionate with people, but I have adapted here. Even when I don’t want to be touched, even when it’s clear that my students have not had the opportunity to change their clothes in a few days or take care of their bodies, even then, I tell myself that these kids need love.

At the end of my senior class, Michelle walks with me around the room to collect highlighters. Anthony is literally running around the classroom in circles. I see him pocket at least five highlighters. He hands me the two that he is holding. I raise my eyebrows and hold out my hand. He smiles and looks at Michelle, who is now looking a bit uncomfortable.

“Please don’t steal my highlighters,” I say.

Anthony starts to giggle, “Are you accusing me of stealing…. because I’m black, Ms. Marcus?”

“No,” I roll my eyes, “I’m accusing you because I can see them in your pocket right now.”

Anthony thinks this is funny and it is and it isn’t.

***

Sometimes I don’t know what to say. One of my freshmen girls approaches me in study hall, leaning off the back of her desk and smacking her bubble gum, and says, “Ms. Mar Mar, you seem like you’d be cool to hang out with” and “Did you know I almost got shot last week?” Then this 14-year-old proceeds to tell me about being at a party on Tuesday night where there was a drive-by. She and her friend were standing outside talking about Instagram. When she saw the car, she ducked, but her friend didn’t move in time and was shot. The bullet entered in her ear and came out through her eye. My student describes the horror afterwards, her friend screaming that she couldn’t breathe, how she fought the paramedics and police. She describes her friend’s family collapsing in grief in the same tone that she always speaks in: “real.” She tells me that she spent the night in the hospital.

When I say that she must have felt absolutely terrified, she says that she’s seen worse. She says it’s not like her friend died or anything. This, like many of Cleveland’s shootings, was not on the news. I ask her if she can avoid returning to that place. She shrugs and says that her great aunt lives four houses down. I try to give my best “you are supported and loved and it’s okay to grieve over the trauma of this situation” speech, but she’s one step ahead of me. “It’s just how it is, Mar Mar” she says. I tell her that I am so proud of her for being here, and I reiterate the importance of keeping up with her schoolwork (she’s almost failing my Literature class), which seems so trite in this moment and also like the most significant thing in the whole world.

***

We are finishing up with the poems, and the halls have mostly cleared out. The school begins to feel empty. I ask them if they are ever scared. They don’t talk about this neighborhood, but rather, Anthony tells me a story about the time he and his cousins were pulled out of their car by the police while they were waiting in a friend’s driveway in a white neighborhood. The police accused them of being in someone’s backyard where a break-in had just occurred. He says that three cop cars followed them two cities over, tail to tail. He talks about how terrified his cousin was. How his cousin had never been in a situation like that. I say, “I can only imagine how terrified you were.” I tell him that this is unfair and awful, but he already knows.

I look at my watch. It will be dark out by now. “Let’s get out of here!” I say. I thank them for their help, I tell them how much I love them, I promise a ridiculous amount of extra credit, and we walk down the three flights of stairs. We give high-fives. I remind them to do their homework. As I begin to leave, I look over my shoulder and call out, “Be safe,” and they turn back and say, “You too, Ms. Marcus.” I walk quickly to my car so I can release the tears I have been holding back, because I get to drive home.

Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). Her other work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Cimarron Review, CALYX Journal, Spork, Nashville Review, Slipstream, Tidal Basin Review, and Bodega, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press and a spirited Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH.

For James LeVan, a 16-year-old Cleveland student at Glenville High School, police brutality became top of mind early this year.

He witnessed an uncomfortable interaction between a young Cleveland man and a police officer. LeVan said he did not know the victim and didn’t feel comfortable getting involved, but the incident stuck with him. “It seemed like [the police officer] was harassing him for no reason,” LeVan said. “It didn’t make sense.”

A scholar in the Fatima Center’s Summer Institute, Le Van channeled his confusion into a poem, “The Mind of a White Cop,” in which he speculates about the thinking of a hypothetical white police officer on his daily beat.

Poetry writing was part of the Summer Institute, said Director Apryl Buchanan, with an emphasis on the works on Langston Hughes. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards arranged for guest faculty to speak and teach on Hughes, and on the writing life throughout the six week program.

“Students needed to consider current events, not only in their lives, but things that would affect their generation,” Buchanan said.

LeVan recited his poem, from memory, at the summer institute’s closing ceremony. He said he was nervous. “It was hard getting up there in front of everyone,” he said. “I hoped everyone would like it.”

The Mind of a White Cop

Standing on the corner
Just like I expected
Sitting on the porch with too many people
This means something bad is about to happen
Look, little kids with water guns
Baby jailbirds in training
He’ll be in the back of this car soon
Right along with his dad
Look, those black kids have a white friend
I wonder what he had to do to be accepted
Look, a baby that won’t stop crying
Just give him some crack to calm him down
Oh no!! Six black kids doing the same handshake
I should probably call for backup
No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”
I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually
It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away anything
Black man, medium volume, pull him over
White man, volume all the way up, “Can you make it louder?”
Black man walking in front of an abandoned house
Let me investigate
Black boy kissing a white girl with those fat lips
Throw him in jail, “Attempted suffocation of an Innocent girl”
Dreadhead, slam him in the back. Look like he smoke weed all day
I’ll give him a drug test because I feel like it 
I knew it!! I’ll give him 10 seconds to run
I won’t lock up his light-skinned friend
I’m trying to turn one black man against another
We’ve been doing good enough so far 
 

 

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, walked to the lectern at the City Club of Cleveland and managed to distill two years of work on “The Case for Reparations” into an eight-word thesis: “What you have taken should be given back.” It’s time, he argues, for America’s moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

For Coates, 38, the spotlight has never been brighter. His 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, buttressed by original research, an extensive bibliography and film clips, broke the record for single-day traffic on the magazine’s website when it was published May 21.

Coates took comic Stephen Colbert’s jabs on “The Colbert Report.” At MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Coates onto her eponymous show, while Bill Moyers provided an argument-expounding forum on PBS. But Coates, who brought to the City Club both father, William Paul Coates, and an iPad full of notes, was humble. He defined patriotism as “love of country” and pointed out that—just as his father loves him and his wife loves him—love rarely involves telling him what he wants to hear. Mature love, mature patriotism, means facing the things that do not credit the beloved.

Asked by an audience member what reparations would look like, Coates suggested that they could resemble the reparations the U.S. government provided the Japanese-Americans wrongly interned during World War II and the financial compensation made to Jews by the German nation after the same war. He stressed that housing and educational policies of discrimination and racism harm African-Americans to this day and that the same policies undergird white supremacy.

The Baltimore native arrived at the Atlantic in 2008 after stints at Time magazine and the Village Voice. Coates’ regular column at The Atlantic has become a hub of intellectual discourse on the web, where he has held court on everything from the NFL banning the N-word to President Obama’s reproach of young black men in a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Asked about the state of investigative journalism, Coates stressed that his magazine editors put substantial resources into richly documenting “The Case for Reparations” and creating a full multimedia narrative as well.

Coates insists on history. “You have to imagine a society where owning people is not just legal but our greatest intellectuals are arguing that it’s morally correct,” Coates told a silent crowd. “We have to learn to consider enslavement, in that time, as legit an institution as home-ownership is, in this time.” He called out Natchez, Miss., not New York City, as home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in 1860’s America. This is because it was the major hub for slave trading.

One of Coates’ admirable traits is his quick acknowledgment of his limitations. He told the audience that he had dropped out of college; he demurred from answering a question that he didn’t feel well-read enough to take on. He said that in June he started a seven-week French immersion class at Vermont’s Middleburg College. “I just wanted to go someplace where I was the dumbest person there. I was just bumbling around; I was making mistakes. Because it’s good to be reminded that it’s not about you.”

The best thing to come out of writing the reparations article was that “now I know,” Coates said. “And I can’t be lied to.”

Briefly, he mentioned protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aching to use historical context to uncover an accurate picture. He asked what police—who have used toxic language and intimidating displays of force on protesters and journalists—might have done before the eyes of the nation were upon them. He suggested that those in the audience with white bodies need not worry about a day when they would be shot dead in the afternoon and left in the street for four hours, as happened August 9 when Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. “All I want to see is some history of the housing there. We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”

Twice during his talk, Coates spoke of the mental and spiritual strain that accompanies being black in America, and his wonder at the continuing optimism of African Americans. He prescribed international travel. “Because this thing will consume you,” he said. “It will eat you. It will eat your soul. It will make you forget you’re a human being with particular likes and dislikes and things that make you different…You are more than a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s important, for our own mental health, to get out every once in a while.”

Anthony Marra startled the literary world in 2013 with his stunner of a debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His fresh, Chechnya-inspired book won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and will bring its author to Cleveland for the first time. He follows in the footsteps of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, who spoke last year about his own war novel, “The Yellow Birds” on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

Marra, 30, will speak and read at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 10, in the intimate setting of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case. “Wars shatter families, relationships, even stories,” Marra has said. “But Constellation is less a story about war than a story about ordinary people rebuilding their lives during and in the aftermath of war. It’s a story not about rebels and soldiers, but about surgeons, nurses, and teachers, each of whom tries to salvage and recreate what has been lost.”
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The writer first found his way to the Caucuses as an undergraduate abroad. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches at Stanford University. His novel, set over five days between the two modern Chechnya wars, has many sources in nonfiction and fiction. One is to the work of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; another is the Anisfield-Wolf winner Edward P. Jones.

In crackling scenes flecked with notes of mordant humor, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena contains six central characters, and begins with an 8-year-old girl hiding in the forest as the Russian federals burn her home and “disappear” her father. A neighbor determines to hide the child in a mostly-destroyed hospital where one doctor and one nurse remains. “When I traveled to Chechnya,” Marra remarked, “I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.”

The novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Marra earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied with novelist Adam Johnson at Stanford. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Narrative magazine, the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology, and the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.

The Baker-Nord event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Get more information and RSVP for the event HERE.

The melodic beckoning of Caribbean steel-pan drum greeted guests at the Midwestern premier of Dutch filmmaker Ida Does’ Derek Walcott documentary, “Poetry Is An Island.” The title, and inspiration for the film, came from Walcott’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. A dozen years later, Walcott won an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.

Jointly hosted by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and Karamu House, the afternoon began with Karamu actors staging a powerful 15-minute excerpt from Walcott’s 1970 play, “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Karamu last produced the drama in 2006, when it was named Best Stage Production by Cleveland Scene.

The documentary begins with a handful of Walcott’s confidantes: his childhood friends, Arthur Jacobs and Sir Dunstan St. Omer; his domestic partner of 26 years, Sigrid Nama; his former personal assistant, Michelle Serieux among others. Despite their various roles in Walcott’s life, they all make similar observations: Walcott is a serious man, with a serious work ethic, who sees the world as few people do.

Born 84 years ago on the island of St. Lucia, Walcott came to see his early efforts to paint and write as an homage to his father, Warwick Walcott, a painter and a poet, who died at age 31 of an infection when his son was a toddler. By the time Walcott was 14, he had published his first poem in the local newspaper; at 18 he had written enough to compile his first book. “I asked my mother for $200, which was, I don’t even know how much that would be today, and she gave it to me. I sold my books for $1 a copy and I made the money back.” Walcott’s eyes twinkled. “But I don’t think I paid her back,” he added with a laugh.

Does’ film-making style is that of inconspicuous observer, but occasionally viewers get to sit across from Walcott and take in his words, one on one. In a moving scene, Walcott reads a poem about his parents and tears begin to pool in the corners of his eyes. “Oh, this is wicked,” he said as he paused to compose himself. His love is palpable.

Most of Walcott’s work centers on St. Lucia, and it is revelatory to see him in his element. Yet the artist expressed considerable frustration over a dream that has stalled: the creation of an artist’s colony on Rat Island, a small, unoccupied bit of land off the St. Lucian coast. After Walcott won the Nobel Prize, he built a home, and donated some prize money toward an international arts center.  But there has been no discernible progress; nor are there any museums or theater for live productions on the island. In the documentary, Walcott criticizes the government and wonders aloud if he would see St. Lucia embrace and encourage a thriving arts culture in his lifetime. “Poetry gives us…consolation,” Walcott says in the final scenes. “It provides spiritual strength. It is…the language of love.”

After the premier, filmmaker Ida Does took questions from the audience via Skype from her home in the Netherlands. Does said she first approached Walcott about making a documentary in 2008 and characterized the five-year journey to complete the film as a labor of love. “I was fascinated by him,” Does remarked. “It is amazing to see what a great thinker he is.”

On the cusp of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, join awards manager Karen R. Long for a personal introduction to the titles being honored this year. Long will offer a speed date with each book, and an introduction to the Lifetime Achievement winners on Wednesday, September 3 at noon. Her presentation will kick off this fall’s Brown Bag Book Club at the Cleveland Public Library downtown.

In subsequent weeks, the series will then break out to examine each of the 2014 award-winning books in turn. Beginning Wednesday, September 10, readers will gather at noon with expert librarians to consider the poetry, novel and nonfiction works in the spotlight this year:

 The Big Smoke

by Adrian Matejka

Wednesday, September 10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra
Wednesday, September 17

My Promised Land

by Ari Shavit
Wednesday, September 24

Tickets to the September 11 awards ceremony at the Ohio Theatre are available here. (Stand-by tickets are guaranteed due to no-shows.)

Karen R. Long served as book editor of The Plain Dealer for eight years before becoming the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Long is a vice president for the National Book Critics Circle, where she is a judge for its six annual prizes, awarded each March in New York City.

Karen will give her talk on the 2nd Floor of the Main Library Building, in the Literature Department. Interested guests will be able to check out the featured books after the talk. Questions? Call the library at 216-623- 2881.

Poet Adrian Matejka mixed his love of boxing with his love of literature to produce “The Big Smoke,” 52 poems that center on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. The collection won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

On September 10, Matejka will bring his words to the Cleveland canvas of the Old Angle Boxing Gym while boxer Roberto Cruz, 11, and Corey Gregory, 42, will each demonstrate the sweet science in separate demonstration bouts. We are proud to collaborate with Old Angle owner Gary Horvath and Dave Lucas of Brews + Prose to welcome the Clark Avenue neighborhood, the boxing community and local literati for a memorable night of sport and poetry.

The evening begins at 7 p.m. and is free. The public is welcome, with registration details available at the event’s Facebook page. Matejka, a professor at Indiana University, will also take audience questions and sign books.  He spent eight years researching the storied and much-mythologized life of Johnson before creating the poems—told in the voices of the boxer and the people around him.

“There is a wonderful recording of Johnson narrating part of his 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries,” Matejka told Shara Lessley of the National Book Awards. “As Johnson describes the action, his cadences emulate the fight action in a way that makes him sound like a ring announcer. I used the recording as one of the primary sources for Johnson’s ‘voice’ in the book.”

Matejka, 42, said some of his work, particularly the sonnets, reflect the physicality and cadences of the sport.  “The Big Smoke” ends in 1912, a full 34 years before Johnson died. Matejka plans a second volume of poems on the man who, he says, “managed to win the most coveted title in sports, but through the combination of his own hubris and the institutionalized racism of the time, he lost everything. That rise and fall naturally lends itself to the oral tradition of poetry.”

A beaming and gracious Greg Louganis absorbed two standing ovations at the City Club of Cleveland, a gay pride flag at his left shoulder. City Club Executive Director Dan Moulthrop believes this was the first time the pride flag has stood on the dais of the free speech forum in its 102-year history.

A few hours before Louganis helped kick off Gay Games 9, the Olympic gold medal diver answered questions from a sold-out audience and Ronald B. Richard, the president of the Cleveland Foundation, the first presenting sponsor in the games’ 32 year history.

Louganis, 54, forfeited millions of dollars in sponsorship in 1994 by coming out as an HIV-positive gay man at Gay Games 4 in New York. Only Speedo stood by the athlete who won multiple gold medals in the Los Angeles summers games in 1984 and again in Seoul, South Korea in 1988.

“I hate to say role model and I hate to say hero,” said Louganis, “because I always want to get better and I always want to be better.” Asked by Richard who he admires in sports, Louganis named Australian diver Mathew Mitcham who came out while competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and denied the Chinese a sweep of the diving gold medals.

Recalling the infamous moment when he struck his head on the diving board as he executed a two-and-one-half pike, Louganis said, “I had no idea what I did wrong.” His perseverance, he said, came from his friend Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS through his hemophilia treatment and became an early face of the disease. In 1988, Louganis had just learned his own HIV status, which would have nixed his Olympic competition had the South Korean government known it. Instead, Louganis sealed his place in sports history by ignoring his concussion and winning both the spring board and tower diving events.

“I’m a lover not a fighter,” Louganis said. “But Ryan was my inspiration to fight through everything.”  The diver grew into his advocacy gradually, saying he deliberately began his book tour for his 1995 memoir, “Breaking the Surface,” in Lawrence, Kansas: “It is important to get outside your community. If you are uncomfortable, you are probably in the right place.”

Louganis looked supremely comfortable chatting with Richard and taking questions from the crowd.  He declared his fitness regimen as important to his health as his medications – with an emphasis on yoga, spin classes, biking, resistance training and wind sprints.

Asked about his ethnicity, Louganis said his wide nose and darker skin made him self-conscious about being partly Samoan.  As a child, he said he was called the N-word, and mocked for his undiagnosed dyslexia with the usual array of cruel taunts.  Louganis, adopted at nine months by a Greek-American father and a mother of Scot-Irish heritage, grew up in San Diego. Now, he enjoys the embrace of both the Greek and Pacific Island communities. A stranger in Honolulu once came forward to say he was Louganis’ birth father, but the athlete said he did not pursue it.

“Don’t underestimate—never underestimate—the positive impact you can have on people just by being yourself,” Louganis told the audience. “I think that’s the most important thing.”

Richard praised Louganis’ courage in successfully blocking the 1996 Olympic volleyball preliminaries in Cobb County, Georgia, after the county passed an anti-gay resolution.  “Such courage combines with the warm, humble, down-to-earth manner of one who isn’t afraid to admit he was nervous about speaking out,” Richard said.

Kevin Schmotzer, a lifelong Clevelander and Gay Games 9 board director, helped arrange for Louganis’ participation in Cleveland.  He stood up at the City Club to ask if the athlete would help with a documentary on how the lives of gay Northeast Ohioans have transformed. “I’ll narrate it,” Louganis answered, to warm applause.

Working on his own new documentary, “Back on Board,” has helped Louganis celebrate one happy ending. “It ends with our marriage,” he announced, beaming at husband Johnny Chaillot, whom he married last October after the law in Californian shifted to marriage equality.

“I tell the story better than that,” Chaillot ad-libbed to much laughter.

Louganis declared the most important work in AIDS remains in practicing prevention. “My husband and I are sero-different: he’s negative and I’m positive, and I intend to keep it that way.”

“Today I will be reciting my poem, ‘The Mind of a White Cop,'” said James LeVan, 16, as he introduced his work during the closing ceremony of the Teen Leadership Program at the Fatima Family Center in Cleveland. LeVan recited in a deep, law enforcement voice:

 Oh no! 6 black kids doing the same handshake

I should probably call for backup

No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”

I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually

It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away with anything

One by one, the remaining 32 participants walked to the front of the gym to recite poems and read essays they created over the summer. Fatima Center Director LaJean Ray smiled broadly from the sidelines.

The facility, nestled in Cleveland’s historic Hough neighborhood, has become an anchor institution over its 30 years. A new building, dedicated in 2000, was designed by renowned Cleveland architect Robert Madison. It contains gardens, kitchens, an early learning center, a youth summer camp, a game room, a library and a computer center. Fatima launches field trips and provides tutoring, parenting and GED classes. It also offers free clothing, health screenings and food.

This year, the summer teen leadership program added an Anisfield-Wolf component: a concentration on the work and life of poet Langston Hughes. The students, aged 14-18, followed a packed schedule: weekly trips to local colleges and visits to business and government offices, including a stop at the mayor’s and a chat with the chief of police.  This was the only summer program in Cleveland to pay teens a $350 stipend, thanks to Ray’s collaboration with Youth Opportunities Unlimited.

Starting last winter, Summer Institute Director Apryl Buchanan worked with Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, to present a roster of guest faculty. Current and former Plain Dealer columnists Philip Morris and Margaret Bernstein discussed their careers as journalists and community activists while author Afi Odelila-Scruggs introduced “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and led the students in composing beats for Hughes’ work “Dream Boogie.” Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, led a discussion of Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” and familiarized students with the common application used on many campuses..

I had the good fortune to serve as a speaker, discussing how I’ve used social media to build a career. As a writing exercise, I asked students to craft a few paragraphs on what they wanted their lives to look like in 10 years – in the voice of themselves a decade hence. Many described careers and families that inspired me. Students were curious, courteous and inviting, and it became clear that the Fatima summer institute was making headway. I felt right at home with these future leaders.

“They may not appreciate it yet,” Ray cautioned parents at the closing ceremony. “But they will. They’re good kids. They’ll understand later.”