The Miami Youth Academy houses up to 28 boys from 14 to 18 years old, who are sent there by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The students publish stories and poems for their student newspaper Titan Tribune, which they produce in a journalism class run by Exchange for Change, a local nonprofit group that teaches writing classes in youth commitment and adult correctional facilities. Retired newspaper reporter Henry Unger has taught the class for nearly two years in collaboration with the academy and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. This is a story from the May 2021 issue. The students are identified by initials to protect their identities.
By Titan Tribune staff
M. D., D. K., D. T. and A. M. submitted poetry for the PIANO SLAM 13 contest in December, 2020. They were among 1,271 student entries from schools throughout Miami-Dade County Public Schools. All entries were judged in three rounds: initially with community activists and writing professors, culminating in a final round of prominent, published poets. The finalists must receive a unanimous yes vote from all eleven of the poet judges.
M. and D. were selected as finalists on April 1. Then the contest announced four overall winners on May 13, 2021: two from middle school, including M., and two from high school.
For being one of four winners, M. was awarded $1,000, in addition to a $100 prize for being a finalist. D. also received $100 for being a finalist.
M. and D. received individualized coaching for writing, public appearance and performance in advance of the contest finale.
For 13 years, the Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation’s PIANO SLAM has been a highly successful musical performance and education program that incorporates an annual poetry and spoken-word competition. Miami Youth Academy has participated the past two years. Last year, two students from Miami Youth Academy were finalists as well.
M. described the experience as a great opportunity. “I think it was pretty good. It was hard for me, because other contestants had great poems. Coaches helped me a lot. My coach, John Acevedo, is a poet. He told me things I should change.”
When asked if he had ever done anything like PIANO SLAM, he replied, “I never did poetry like this before. I did win an art contest at RR Moton. I won second or third place for a drawing of a flower.“
When asked for advice for future contestants, M. said, “If you put your mind to it, you can probably do it. It was hard at the beginning, but I told myself I could do it.”
You can read M.D.’s poem here.
Read the others below:
By D. K. (Finalist)
Like alternating meters, my life is so hard
I don’t know why the streets are so dangerous
I’m feeling scared
COVID is a pathogen it’s going to multiply and try to take me out
I had good intentions but I switched it up and took another route
Writing raps in cells, wasn’t getting mail or sending nothing out
An open ear is also a running mouth
Watch the volume, not too loud
Watch your heart rate, beating to crescendo
Got different tempos like an instrumental, detrimental
The climate getting hotter, what’s up with all these changes
Trapped in a cell, a house, a room, my life is so full of strangeness
Sadness, madness, feeling of aggression
My intellectual capability far exceeds the sea level
By D. T.
As I sit and think about my aria
My understanding grows to crescendo
I use my mind and think about the future
Time is what has been wasted
Now it’s freedom I wish I tasted
Growing up without a mother, elegy of sorrow
Conductor of my life, now till tomorrow
There’s still love for you in my heart momma
I promise not to change
I have learned to make something out of nothing.
Forte! This is my life
Growing up being disobedient, dissonance
Messed up my image, rewind/replay
A person trying to gain love, screaming for attention
Blasting my rhymes as loud as I could, please listen
Not being myself has taken over me
Someday that will change, time past
June 17th 2020, I was shot in the face BANG!
Didn’t listen to my grandmother’s song
I should have stayed home
I lay down on the ground holding my face
Thinking is this over? Will I survive and get a second show?
This young man is growing up, tempo rising
And will become something as I compose a new story
I got my chance and know I’m going to take advantage
I’ll write my new concert and perform it on stage
This is my life
By A. M.
My life is like COVID, family isolating and all I see are deaths
Times are getting harder like water turning into ice
People are telling me relax, and be more serene
But it’s difficult in this cacophony of shattered dreams
All the thoughts in my head are piling up like trash in a dumpster
The notes of my life are a song getting darker
My life has been rocked and rolled
Like a tornado shredding through a town
I’m so furious, and upset all I can do is frown
A crescendo, rage growing like a cat 5 hurricane
Speakers blowing, going insane!
All I can hear is demons screaming my name
When is this concert going to end?
Will my second symphony sound the same?
Would I be able to change?
Compose a new opus and try to maintain
COVID changed the tempo, fortissimo, CRASH!
And made everything dark, descending in vibrato
But I have hope for the future, vaccines are out
Adagio but allegro, the sun is coming out
I look forward to writing the new coda of my life
A new beginning without any strife
A refreshing new tune that brightens the sky
A new rhythm and beat, testament to life
And how I’ve changed since COVID came about
No more darkness ahead, just clear harmonies and sounds
Every day is getting better, will be better, must be better!
Everything is changing back from bad to good!
From introduction to curtain call, we will all Survive!
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.