This is first in a series of posts that I've been meaning to make over the last few months of tour, but am only now getting to.
Like most people, I couldn't wait to leave the town that I grew up in. My entire world was a little place called Sierra Vista, and it seemed to me that it existed at the expense of everywhere else: I wouldn't be able to expand my horizons until I left and vowed never to come back. Sure, that's extreme, but the world is an extreme place at 18 years old.
Again, like many people, I used the change of scenery to reinvent myself. Moving to Flagstaff, I grew my hair long and started to read my poems in public. I played a lot of guitar with people I had just met. I skateboarded everywhere. These were all things that I hadn't been able to do in my hometown.
It has only been this spring––some seven years later––that I've made my peace with this place. Though I regularly came back to visit my parents, I still wasn't comfortable. Then, a few years back, I began to perform in Bisbee from time to time and discovered a generous and empathetic audience.
Word got around, and plans started to be made for coming back to my old high school. I've always liked working in schools, but I was nervous about this one. I had been a very different person in high school––would the place remember me that way? There was lots of anticipation.
On a Friday in late March I did two performances for about 500 students each, and had brought along two of my favorite poets from the Albuquerque scene: Carlos Contreras and Jasmine Cuffee. I didn't want it to be about me, I wanted to be about us, about the students: this was something that anybody could do. After the school-day performances, we came back to the library later that night for a performance open to the entire community. It was a great little crowd.
Jazz, Carlos, Adam (along for the ride), and I celebrated hard later that night. I woke up on my living room floor the next morning (it was a full house) with a groggy head. Carlos tells me "You're not going to believe this," and tosses a newspaper at me. I fail to catch it, and it hits me in the face. And there it was: my mug on the front page. Holy shit. What a surreal thing.
Then the following Monday we did something like four workshops with about 30 students each. We tried to touch on everything in a very short time: free writing, revising, reading for a peer group, performing for a crowd, and even organizing a slam. Turns out that it worked, because a month or so later the school held their first-ever poetry slam.
And the student council asked me to speak at the Class of 2008 graduation, which I did last Thursday. The day had started with near-disaster: I was traveling to Sierra Vista from New York City, where Verbobala had just played our last date of the spring tour. Arriving to JFK, the airline had lost my reservation, and I was moments from missing my plane.
But no, the angels were smiling, and I made it to graduation. I may be the first person to ever give a graduation speech whose theme is I really don't know what to tell you. I had been racking my brains on the plane, and I realized that it would seem false to me if I suddenly got up in front of that crowd and tried to feign wisdom. I really didn't know what I could say that would be all-encompassing and relevant... except, well, that: I don't have it figured out perfectly and neither does anybody else. But that's OK. I then told a story I wrote a few years ago called "Sun Said Shine," and pulled from it a few tips that I thought might be useful. The newspaper was there again.
The infamous Sierra Vista wind was in full force, it was like the X-Games version of a high school graduation. Far cooler than speaking was getting to shake the hand of each one of the 596 graduates immediately after they received their diploma. What a unique moment to be a part of. Crazy damn kids. The world is theirs.
It's all been a really big honor, one that I never saw coming. Big thanks are in order to the principal Tad Bloss and the amazing librarian Mary Kohn, without whom I might have never made peace with this weird little place where I spent sixteen years of my life. And I helped bring poetry into the "cool" at my old HS. That feels good.