Aaron Jenkins: Getting Stuff Off His Chest
Entering East End Neighborhood Academy for the first time in months, 14-year-old Aaron Jenkins was at ease. It was clear that he still felt at home in this private school of seventy students. It was a Friday, and Aaron was wearing a white polo and khakis. In the hallway, he easily deflected catcalls from friends and former classmates about his choice of dress. “I’m getting my picture taken,” Aaron said. “I have to look nice.”
Staff and students at the Neighborhood Academy are well aware of Aaron’s accomplishment. Last spring, Aaron wrote his final paper for Civics and Language Arts class on City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writer-in-residence, the Chinese poet and human rights activist, Huang Xiang. When choosing his topic from a list of prominent figures that included Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Aaron decided to avoid the obvious. “I wanted to go with someone I didn’t know,” he said. “I wanted to learn more.”
Aaron went above and beyond the requirements. He took the initiative to meet with Henry Reese, director of COA/P, to hear about Huang’s life. He visited the house that Huang lived in for two years while staying in Pittsburgh’s Northside.
After learning about Huang’s life, Aaron sensed that “most of it was pain but he made something of it. He didn’t let it get him down.” Huang is a survivor of the Maoist regime in China, where he faced imprisonment in forced labor camps and government persecution for his activist writing. His work continues to be banned in China. Aaron was inspired to write the essay in Huang’s own voice. He also included original poems based on Huang’s experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution. The work paid off. Huang was so impressed with Aaron’s piece he mentioned him in a lecture delivered in Spain this past summer.
Aaron’s piece surprised not only his teacher and classmates, but also the director of COA/P. “I was not prepared for Aaron’s level of imaginative engagement or his sheer talent. Entering the house where Huang Xiang lived, Aaron seemed to enter into his mind, experiencing the repression and censorship personally,” said Reese. “His finished poem is more mature than anything I would have ever expected.”
Aaron’s project is the result of East End Neighborhood Academy’s unique academic program. The Neighborhood Academy was founded in 2001 by Reverend Thomas Johnson and Josephine Moore as a college-preparatory school for low-income students in the Pittsburgh area. Their goal was to offer low-income families the means to provide students with a private school education that would enable gradautes to attend college. Its curriculum seeks to integrate academics with elements of non-sectarian worship, counseling and career services, athletics, and the arts. As part of the school’s Arts Connection program, students have the choice of selecting between activities ranging from Photography to African Dance and Drumming.
Emily Carlson, Aaron’s eighth grade Language Arts teacher, has brought poetry to the fore. Her Shout Out poetry reading series brings students together with local poets to share each other’s work. Previous participants include Terrance Hayes, Brian Francis, and Toi Derricotte. Carlson said that the aim of these readings is to “teach empowerment through the artistic expression of writing and reading poetry.” Two students are invited to share their work with the poet and the student audience at the beginning of each session.
Brent Jernigan, Aaron’s academic advisor, praises the project. “It developed a different definition of poetry—that poetry is more than words. It’s community. It was great to see how these young guys were completely turned on to poetry at that time,” he said.
Aaron was drawn to the work of Terrance Hayes. He read Hayes’ Muscular Music in Jernigan’s Advisory class, where students are encouraged to talk about their coursework as well as their interdisciplinary interests. “He wrote about a lot of things I could relate to,” Aaron said. “Whether they were good or bad he would write about that.”
Aaron started writing poems at the age of eleven. He credits his mother for discovering his work and encouraging him to continue. “She told me, ‘You have a good mind. You should continue writing poems.’ That’s when I really started writing them and reading them,” he said.
Most of Aaron’s poetry deals with his experiences at home or at school. His subjects range from tackle football to family confrontations. Aaron described writing as a way of working through the problems in his life. “Without writing, some people who don’t like to talk about their feelings would just be so down all the time and life wouldn’t be good for them,” he related. “Whenever I write about things it gets me to feel better. It gets stuff off my chest.”
One of the most difficult subjects Aaron has ever written about is the death of his father, a police officer who died in the line of duty. “I started writing about that immediately,” Aaron remembered. “It was just painful. I didn’t read over those ones. I didn’t edit any of those ones. I just wrote about it automatically.”
Aaron provided insight into his own writing process: “When I got angry I would just sit and write. Later I learned I would have to take time and cool down because if I wrote right away it wouldn’t be as neat.” Poetry gave Aaron a way to sift through the events in his life. “I was able to think about it more. It helped me to understand things more, understand what was happening and why it was happening,” he added.
‘The Lonely Boy’
When asked to draw similarities between Huang Xiang’s life and his, Aaron emphasized that, like Huang, he has moved around a lot. “When I moved I would make close friends and then I would have to move again,” Aaron said. “Some of it was good. Sometimes we would move to better places.”
Aaron chooses not to dwell on the negative. In the case of Huang, he said, “Pittsburgh is the land of chance and freedom. Coming here could have gotten him a better job or made it worse. It got better.” The same sentiment goes for the Neighborhood Academy. In a poem titled “The Lonely Boy,” Aaron writes:
he also keeps them locked up
hoping just one day
there will be a better place
where he can let all his thoughts out,
but three years later he is at a
private school expressing every
thing he feels.
About the differences between him and Huang, Aaron stated, “My life isn’t as tough as his. I still have ups and downs and blockages but he had it worse.” Aaron sympathized with the fact that Huang was unable to go to school and write what he wanted to. “It was wrong,” Aaron said, about the persecution that Huang endured under the Communist regime. “Once he got here he had a little bit more to work with. He got a better life, a little bit.”
Aaron currently attends high school at Woodland Hills, where he continues to write poetry. After the interview, he could be seen walking in and out of classrooms, laughing with former teachers and students. Outside the eleventh grade lockers, someone claimed that Aaron’s “star is on the rise.” He smiled and deflected the praise as easily as he shrugs off jokes. Aaron admitted that his feelings towards the Huang project were less than happy in the beginning. “I thought it might be a whole bunch of work for nothing,” he said. “Towards the middle, I started to like it. In the end, I wanted to do the best paper I could.”
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