canTeens: Canteen Magazine in Harlem

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity of meeting a few great people from the publishing team of Canteen Magazine at a literary reading event, OutWrite, at KGB Bar in New York. As I was doing an informal interview with the publisher Stephen Pierson for a piece I’m preparing for Bant Mag, he informed me of their tutoring program in Harlem, canTeens, and invited me to join their year-end show the next day.

So I went.

canTeens tutoring takes place at Street Squash, a center where children can learn how to play Squash and receive tutoring for their classes, college prep, or in this case, creative writing. When I arrived, Stephen met me at the door and took me up to one of the classrooms on the second floor. As we climbed the glass stairs, I could see the Squash courts below, filled with excited children of mostly African American and Latin American descent. Stephen explained that they had children from three age groups: 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. He was taking me to the classroom for the 7th graders, for which he was one of the volunteer teachers. He kept warning me that today was going to be an unusual and non-representative day, because it was the year-end show, and that normally their days were not as chaotic. I assured him that I was used to such chaos, having worked with children in similar situations before.

Soon, the children began filing into the classroom, and were directly attracted to the snacks placed on a table on one side of the room. Grabbing more than one snack each, they took a seat at the tables spread out around the room, two students per table. While some had Street Squash t-shirts on them, others wore uniforms of various charter schools from around Harlem. My presence was noticed right away, and I was met with curious smiles. They didn’t have to wait too long to find out who I was, however, for Stephen began the class by introducing me. He asked if anyone knew where Turkey was, and several students shouted out “Europe”. One asked me what language was spoken in Turkey, and a few others asked me to say something in Turkish. After hearing, “Merhaba, benim adim Selin/Hello, my name is Selin,” the girl closest to where I sat told me that Turkish was pretty and that she wished she could speak another language. It turned out later that she already speaks English, French, and Wolof.

Today’s class was different from their usual classes, as Stephen had been telling me, because they did not work on any writing but practiced their existing pieces in preparation for the show that would soon begin. Those who volunteered were about to read one or several of their writings to their 6th and 7th grader friends. Stephen asked the group what some strategies were to read well in front of large groups. Some things that came up were: speak loudly and clearly, speak slowly, and imagine people in their underwear.

The girl sitting closest to me (I choose not to disclose her name), informed Stephen that she wasn’t going to read her piece in front of the large group, for she was too scared, but that she would read it here in the classroom. Although Stephen did try to encourage her, there was no pressure. However, after hearing the letter she had written to her future granddaughter, I too wished she would read it in front of everyone, or even to a larger audience. If you hadn’t known who had written it, you would believe it to be a letter from a wise grandmother to her beloved granddaughter. She warned her granddaughter with genuine affection never to let any man touch her in any unwanted way. She threatened her with a beating if she ever did let this happen, as well as the man who would dare do such a thing. My description here does not do justice to the letter, and the whole time I kept thinking how I hope she would keep writing.

However, hers was not the only piece that made my jaw drop. A large-built boy, who also said he was too shy to read in front of a large group (actually seeming like he just needed a little bit of encouragement and would be easily convinced), read out his presidential statement, as if he were a candidate. In his statement, he pointed out teenage pregnancy and resultant broken homes as the biggest problems that the nation’s youth faces. He spoke with confidence and detailed his plan for educating the youth in preventing this cycle of unwanted children and unhappy, unproductive young people. Another boy read a poem he had written about his experiences with “Moving to the Ghetto”, and another wrote to his grandson, saying to make a good impression and be true to himself.

After the practices, we all went down to the courts, where the readings would take place. The sixth graders went first. Unfortunately, I only had time to see them read, and not the 7th or 8th graders. I left there with overwhelming inspiration, emotion, and hope. I can’t wait to read these pieces in the next issue of canTeen.

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