Poetry from Chelsea High

In November, I spent a day with English Teacher Jackie Gagnon's 9th and 10th grade Chelsea High School students in Chelsea, Massachusetts. We read, watched, and listened to three poems about people in our lives: Quincy Troupe's "Magic Johnson," my poem, "My Grandfather's Hand,"* and Jose Salinas' poem "Bittersweet Images."*   (*See these two poems, at the end.)

The students drafted poems that day, then sent them to me and we corresponded back and forth twice over revisions.  Finally, I chose 17 of my favorites. Below, you will find them, poems by JJE Alas (AKA Beatz), Marcos Barrazo, Kachana Bau, Elizabeth Capeles, Hau Che, Hoshang Dadran, Miguel Dominguez, Sharlene Karmally, Maria Maldonado, Elizabeth Motta, Andrea Medina, Ivan Pejic,Maritza Rios, Alysha Santiago, Raquel Tice, Hernan Vaquerano (AKA Sweatyz), Maria Letitia Ventura.

I've learned that students don't get credit for any kind of writing on the MCAS except the five-paragraph essay.  While the ability to write a five paragraph essay is an obtainable and at times useful skill, I would note that some of the beautiful and espressive "felt ideas" in these poems might not be conveyed very well in that form. I wish the state would recognize the many genres of writing that our students are capable of and should be encouraged to write in, and I thank Ms. Gagnon for giving valuable class time to me and the students to attempt poetic form. (This opinion is my own and not that of the school, the teacher nor her talented students.)

                                                                                              --Diane Kendig, Writers in the Schools


Tracy McGrady, Tracy McGrady
          Nicknamed T-Mac
Plays for the Magic
         He creates Magic
               creates nazty plays
                           nazty alleyoops
                           nazty dunks
                           nazty cross-outs
In other words, creates Magic.
Tracy, the heart of his team,
         Pumps momentum to his teammates.
Capable of many things, he is just too nazty.

  --JJE Alas (AKA Beatz)


He’s a boastful baby,
always trying to get something.

Intelligence incapable by any other baby,
always trying to impress someone.

When irritated or angry, though, 
my brother can scream and bite.

Named after his grandfather Andrew,
which means courageous.

I would have to agree.
He is really brave.

 --Marcos Barraza 
My Mother

Skillful and fit to be in command
the most generous person
I know
she loves all shades of black and gold
always gives, never takes,
never fakes her feelings,
and worries, I know, about my sake.

--Kachana Bau


The sexiest papi chulo 
I’ve ever seen,
his luscious lips and nicely-cut abs
enough to make you scream.

Delicious caramel skin
just makes you want to eat him up.
You see his body, want to tell him,
“Baby, turn around, go bump, bump bump.”

  --Elizabeth Capeles


She was only eight
too young to understand.
Daddy’s little girl,
too scared to tell.

All those years of silence
had her mute,
but her trembling outstretched hand
was all that needed to be grasped.

  --Hau Che 

My friend is Russian, rather a relentless one,
never nice to anybody, forever fighting for his goals,
a ferocious friend, who never helps his hard-up friends
and sometimes even becomes parasitic,
penetrating their property for his own profit.

When we walk together
His only topic is Girls, Girls, and Girls!
which most of the time aggravates all his companions.
Now, you would wonder why he is my friend,
his habits so wholly different from mine.

I was counseled to learn what causes our camaraderie
and bothered to ask my buddy to know it myself.
What is it that he admires about our amity?
Why are we close cronies?

He said the reason’s respect for each other’s character,
care for continuing our peculiar but cherished companionship,
What I call our one really ritzy quality.

--Hoshang Dadrass

You are sharper than a razor
right off the rack,
Sweeter than a gumdrop 
straight out of the pack.

Although your beauty 
is within,
it flows too 
like the wind

in a field, 
showing on the outside too,
just like your beauty is true,
For this tale is true.

 -- Miguel Dominguez III


My sister is exotic just by her name itself,
also brave, intelligent, strong, funny
beautiful, and sincere.

She is the only person who knows
what I go through
each and every day of my life.

She is solid like a rock,
the one I lean on 
no matter what,

the one who doesn’t hear 
me say often enough
how much I love her.

  --Sharlene Karmally 


Sunny days, sweaty days,
long days of manual labor: stress and pain.
Who are they? Many don’t know them
or how involved in our lives they are.

These are immigrants, 
who pick our tomatoes,
wash our potatoes,
abandon their humble lives 
looking for a better one
and sometimes end with none.

Being immigrants,
they receive less than 
what they ask for 
and end up in big blunders.

Their work is worth more
than an executive’s work
or an archeologist’s search.
Like the mustard seeds which start
small and end big, they finally get
some respect, but not enough yet.

  --Andrea Medina 

Before me an angel.
I must be dreaming,
pinch myself, not an angel 

but indeed, my sweet mother:

petite, powerful woman,
strong enough to move 
a mountain with her smile.

  --Elizabeth Motta 


When I fell off my bike,
you were there to give me a hand.
When I felt slow as a  snail,
you were there to keep me going.

When you and Dad got a divorce,
you told me it was going to be all right
even though you felt as blue as the ocean floor.

You still love me beyond life
when I have gotten on your last nerve.

More than a mother to me, my best friend.

            --Maritza Rios


Papi, that’s what I call him, not
Dad or Daddy, just Papi,
my pops.
Love him so much.
Sometimes he good, sometimes
he bad:
treat my mother bad fo’ sho.
Another woman in the picture,
not just the one
he married.
Now they ain’t together,
but he still my pops cuz
he care for me.
Wants my mom back,
can’t have her.
Knows right from wrong
and does his own laundry.
He there for his kids.
You call him, he comes,
comes to all concerts,
Brings me to 
the laundry too.
I ask him for some money
for something, he gives.
He funny,
good sense of humor.
You know, a “cool dad”
(quote, unquote).
He a teenager,
well at least in his eyes.
tell us he regrets, regrets, 
and regrets.
Tells us to go to school,
be Good.
Help your mom:
You Best help your mom!!
Hard to show it but
cares for my mom.
Visits and doesn’t disappear
like nothing.
Calls the house,
pays the child support.
He didn’t abandon us,
cuz that’s my pops,
my papi, and I love him,
no matter what.

  --Maria Maldonado

A.I.: Bringing Him To Ya

They call him A.I. nuthin else
He’ll cross you over like no one else.
He’ll break your ankles, he’ll fade away,
send you straight to da coma, dunk on your face.

There is no one like him, 
he’s like a shooting machine,
and if you have a problem,
he’s your answer machine.

You can find him in Phillie
rockin’ number 3,
he is the leader of the mpg
and one-time MVP.

He led his team to Finals
and though they lost,
he was keeping it real
presenting the with J Kiss.

And by the way, this is Ivan
Talking to ya
And Allen Iverson?
I brought him to ya.

  --Ivan Pejic 


You view life through a kaleidoscope,
seeing all sides at once, never choosing one,
maybe because of your tough life.
You stuck through, came out on the other side.

All to you is happiness,
Never anything bad except 
The bad that shows you what’s good.

You’re my comforting blanket of warmth.
You share my gladness 
Like a fish shares a pond.

  --Alysha Santiago 


Deeper beauty growing on the inside
not showing till I really look
beyond the physical.

Laughter rumbles from the blue-haired boy
but behind his sarcasm great pain lies,
hidden by a masked grin.

Who are you, jokester?
To what extent would you go
to hide your pain?

Staring into your hazel eyes,
I know I don’t know,
but one day I will.

 --Raquel Tice 


Paul Pierce is the man,
we call him “The Truth,” shoots
outside the perimeter as if doing lay-ups,
shooting fade-aways without looking.
He’s not really a dunker,
but when he dunks, 
it makes us scream and shout.
He dribbles down the floor, smooth
as peanut butter on bread.
His twists and turns are convoluted, 
but free throws? Don’t wanna go
there, his are sometimes like
a rookie’s, but when he’s HOT,
he frees throws like a fiend.
Boston just loves “The Truth.”

  -- Hernan Vaquerano (AKA Sweatyz) 

Risking their lives, crossing the border,
crossing obstacles to give us a better life,
raising seven children the best way possible.
Such goals they have achieved.

Much of this I have not seen,
But my admiration will always be on them,
my guardian angels, sweet company
on a road they once saw as impossible

and now lead me on in the right direction
protecting me from harm.
My father is the North star I look up to.
My mom the planet Venus I observe and admire.

 --Leticia Ventura 

About the Teacher: 
Jackie Gagnon

Ms. Gagnon humbly declined to be interviewed for this space, or to share what her students and I imagine would be her moving and sprightful poem about her hero, L--.

Suffice it to say Ms. Gagonon is legendary at Chelsea High School. Since she herself often jokes about people who are "a legend in their own minds," let us hasten to add that she is legendary in the hallways of Chelsea and in the hearts and minds of current and former students as an enthusiastic, commanding presence, an expert on literature, grammar, vocabulary, and writing, especially the writing of great letters of recommendation.

As they would say on Sabado Gigante, "Un aplauso" for Ms. Gagnon.


A migrant: overworked, underpaid,
under-educated, in search of “Dick
in his family, above all, takes pride
in his work: what other choice 
does he have?

Long hours go by as we fill out hampers,
one after another trying to meet our quota.
sweet images of hopes and dreams fill
our heads to give us something to look
forward to: in reality, only to keep us
from getting bored.

The searching sun in the late afternoon
is but a curse, a curse put upon our
bodies by the evilness of work.
And a gust of wind is but a blessing
from the heavens, a blessing from God: it only
lasts a second or two.

Our tired bones ache from the seemingly
long summer months of hard core, back-
breaking labor.  Joy, the last paycheck!
A sign symbolizing the end of work for us
Migrant Farm Workers: a sign symbolizing
future unemployment and despair.

My parents, my dear parents, you are
but too old and too tired for any further
laboring.  I will, with dignity and obligation,
take care of you at your old age. When I
fail, please forgive me for I am only
a migrant.

-- Jose Salinas 
(First published Envoy1991 ©Jose Salinas1990)

Author's note: Jose Salinas, who wrote this as a first-year college student, is now Director of the Ohio Migrant Education Center, a program for teachers and administrators of migrant workers children. "I have the best job in the world," says Jose.


My grandfather’s hand had no thumb,
no stump, dug out at the joint,
its absence leaving a strange contour
of angles and plains, forefinger to wrist.
From the cellar steps I watched him
build a perpetual motion machine,
carpenter toys—my doll bed
was lacquered jet red by that hand
I never minded at work, hated
in descent as he bent to kiss me.
I braced myself not to flinch,
having learned, even then, his difference,
once past my eyes, no matter,
once touching my cheek.
Even now, I see that difference:
no other hand ever cradled my face so perfectly.

--Diane Kendig

  (First published Louisville Review ©Diane Kendig 1985)