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,