Greatness From Where You Least Expect It

Oscar Robles is the Manager of Civic Engagement for Citizen Schools New Jersey. Marcus was not the student I imagined would shine in the Spoken Word class I taught last fall at Eagle Academy for Young Men in Newark, New Jersey. He never showed any initiative or particular interest in the subject matter. He never raised his hand to answer questions or volunteered to read any of his poems in front of the class. I was absolutely amazed by what happened ten weeks after I met him...

As a staff member for Citizen Schools, I recruit volunteer "Citizen Teachers" to teach apprenticeship classes to middle school students about what they do professsionally or a topic they are passionate about. Last fall, I decided to step into their shoes and teach my own apprenticeship class. As a creative writing major in college and a self-proclaimed poet, I decided to teach my passion and share my love of writing and poetry with a group of students at Eagle Academy once a week for ten afternoon sessions.

Oscar Robles & Spoken Word Students

At the end of the ten weeks, a final presentation was scheduled to take place at the school. This "WOW!" event is a chance for the kids to teach back what they learned during the semester. When I got there to practice with the kids, they were anxious, but excited.

As audience members started to filter in, I purposely didn't want to stand too close to their table as not to pressure them. As I was walking around learning from some of the other apprenticeships, my colleagues kept coming up to me to say how well my kids were doing. I was so proud to hear that not only could they explain the vocabulary they learned, but that they also were able to apply the words to different areas. All of the students were able to give examples of how they would use the skills learned in this apprenticeship in college and their future careers.

Everyone kept mentioning one student in particular that was doing very well - Marcus.

When I asked Marcus about it he said he knew all the information but was shy. It seemed that the opportunity to present to his peers, family and other community members gave him confidence to share what he learned in the apprenticeship.

That confidence also led him to say that he wanted to recite a poem during the performance section of the WOW! As we all moved into the auditorium to get ready for the performances, I could see how nervous the poets were. They were holding their stomachs and wiping sweat from their palms. I told them I would be in the front row and that they were going to do great!


Marcus was the third poet to perform and when he opened his mouth to speak, stage fright hit him full force. He was speechless. Words of encouragement started to come from the audience, but Marcus felt too much pressure and left the stage.  When Marcus finally returned to the microphone, he was able to get the first line of his poem out, but when he couldn't remember the second line, he started to walk off the staff again. This time, the entire audience started to chant his name. Marcus! Marcus! Marcus!

He and I made eye contact and I could tell he was still afraid. I smiled and mouthed, “You can do it!” It seemed like Marcus wasn't so sure and just when I thought he was going to walk off stage again, Principal Vaughn Thompson walked out to meet Marcus on stage.

Principal Thompson asked Marcus to face him and held the microphone as he said, “Just say the poem to me, Marcus.” While still a bit shaky at first, Marcus was encouraged by facing Principal Thompson instead of a full audience. He spoke his poem and I was shocked by the level of honesty and rawness in it. He told a story that spoke of hope and it was incredibly revealing. At the end, the audience erupted in cheers and applause. I don’t know about anyone else in the house, but my eyes were not dry.

Now when I recruit volunteers to teach apprenticeship classes I can tell them with confidence that I've witnessed the impact firsthand. Allowing a student to shine who might have been shy, disengaged or insecure is an unforgettable experience. Every Citizen Teacher has the chance to find their own Marcus, and to help him find his voice.

During the apprenticeship, I introduced the students to all types of poetry. They introduced me to a realness that I hardly knew existed. It was present in our classes everyday. It was there on stage in Marcus's poem. And it will stay with me for a long while to come.

If you're looking for a chance to make a real impact on students, like Oscar had on Marcus, fill out this form today.