Santa Rosa High School teacher’s post-election poem went viral
The world that English teacher Will Lyon’s students live in is glorious, violent, fascinating, harrowing and uncertain.
A key device Lyon uses to instruct teens to analyze and write crisply and powerfully about life, and prepare them to become engaged and successful adults, is poetry.
He subjects his students at Santa Rosa High School to an entire quarter of poetry - listening to it, reading it, talking about it. Then, horror of horrors, they must write their own poems and stand to present them to the class.
“Some are funny,” said Lyon, a sturdy, dark-haired and passionate man of 41. “Some are sad. Some are Hallmark horrible.”
He channels his former role as a wrestling coach, signaling to the student who wrote the strongest poem and to the author of the feeblest poem and to all in between that he cheers their effort and anticipates their next poem being better.
“Get tough!” he may say to a kid who struggles with stage fright or similes. “You can do it!”
Lyon also performs. A poet himself and a veteran of competitive slams, he gauges whether the students care to hear a piece of his. If they do, he’ll deliver it with flourish and verve that, who knows, might feed the flame.
Every student, teacher and nonteaching employee of Santa Rosa High has heard him because he often enough picks up the microphone during the morning announcement broadcast and, for the love of words, recites a poem, a sonnet or the lyrics of a popular song that sound altogether different when a teacher delivers them as prose.
In his 14 years at the school, Lyon has performed no reading remotely like the one that resonated throughout the historic campus two days after the presidential election in November. He said the response of many Latino students to the election of Donald Trump compelled him to write and broadcast the piece.
The day after the election, “it felt like a funeral,” he said. “People were wearing black and crying. It felt like death.”
Lyon had students coming up and asking, “Are they going to deport me now?” He felt the fear was pervasive. About half the student body is Latino, and many students who are citizens have parents or other family members who risk deportation. Non-Latino students feared for their friends.
“It’s hard to find a kid who doesn’t feel threatened,” Lyon said.
He found that he had to declare something to all of the students worried the president-elect’s vision for America does not include them.
“I felt like silence was unacceptable,” the teacher said.
He sat and found that the words to “We Love You No Matter What,” pretty much streamed out of him.
A student used a cellphone to video him as he spent four emphatic and impassioned minutes delivering his poem over the school’s public address system. He began, “You guys that don’t like my poems, please respect this one.”
Then he launched into the piece that cemented his place as the Panthers’ poet laureate. An excerpt:
Dear undocumented students,
In this school
There are no walls
To keep you out
Dear black students,
Your lives matter
Dear Muslim students,
You are not terrorists
Dear Mexican students,
You are not rapists and drug dealers
Dear female students,
Nobody is allowed to grab you
No means No
Maybe means No
Probably means No
Later means No
Anything other than a Hell Yes
And nobody can take your No away
Dear LGBTQQI students,
You are not a sinner or a freak
Choose your own pronoun
Choose your own bathroom
Choose your own date to the prom
And if the bully
Or the blowhard
Tries to tell you otherwise
Whether he is in the school house
Or in the White House
We won’t be bystanders
We will be Upstanders
They will not deport you
Or threaten you
Or diminish you
Or grab you
Or ignore you
Not without a fight
From people who love you
And we love you
No matter what
The response to Lyon’s poetic confirmation of love for all the students has been almost entirely positive.
“I think the kids needed to hear it,” he said. “And the teachers needed permission to say it.”
By now, the video has been viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube. “For me, 10,000 is a lot,” Lyon said.
Nearly two months after the election, Lyon said it’s his sense that students are largely tired of talking about what might result from Donald Trump’s campaign pledges regarding people such as undocumented residents and Muslims.
In the new year, actions by the 45th president may well figure among the developments in the world and at their school and in their personal lives that Lyon and his students will probe, deconstruct, contextualize, celebrate, satirize, counteract - there is no telling what they might do - in poems.
Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and email@example.com.