Clint Smith ’10 finds his voice, and his calling
You should know Clint Smith ’10. When I called English professor Cynthia Lewis to talk about him, she said, “He’s done so beautifully.” When I called English professor Randy Ingram, he said, “He’s got important things to say.” When I called Matt Spear, the soccer coach at Davidson, he said, “You knew he was special.” When I called English professor Alan Michael Parker, he said, “I expect him to continue to surpass his own expectations.” When I called English professor Brenda Flanagan, she said, “I could see him being president of Davidson College. Couldn’t you?”
And early this past summer, in and around Washington, D.C., when I visited with Clint—the Maryland Humanities Council’s 2013 teacher of the year, cultural ambassador to the U.S. Department of State doing workshops on diversity and youth empowerment, national champion performance poet—he was finishing up three years of teaching through Teach for America at Parkdale High School in Riverdale Park, Md., and was preparing to move to Cambridge, Mass., to start pursuing a doctoral degree in education at Harvard. He had recently given a TEDx talk in New York City about resilience. Two of his YouTubed spoken word poems, one about immigration reform, the other about food deserts, had been rocketing around the Internet thanks to Upworthy.com. He was scheduled to give another talk the following month at TED@NYC. I suggested to him, joshing, but not really, that he was about to get big. He demurred.
“My parents told me, ‘You are not bigger than the work you do,’” he said. “It’s not me. It’s the words.”
Last I checked, his latest TED talk, about the danger of silence, had been viewed more than 1.9 million times.
He grew up in New Orleans, in Gentilly, the son of a father who is a lawyer and a mother who is a doctor, and the grandson of a man who cleaned the carpets of whites and of a man who was a university president who, as a teenager, had to move to a different county in Mississippi because his county didn’t have a high school for blacks. His parents put him and his younger brother and sister in the city’s public schools on purpose. In elementary school, when he asked why some people lived in the projects, his father pulled over the car. In middle school, he hid books in the pockets of his baggy pants and locked the doors of bathroom stalls just to read—especially The Giver, a story about the power of memory and the importance of difference. He played soccer for the New Orleans Soccer Association and ran for an urban track club and was an Eagle Scout. His 17th birthday was Aug. 25, 2005. His mother bought him a pineapple cake while he and his father covered their windows with boards.
Two days later, the storm chased them to Houston, where they watched on TV the destruction of their home.
A week later, he was in Davidson, with his father, for his visit as a soccer recruit. Deborah Hogg, in the admissions office, asked about the storm. “What if you can’t go back to New Orleans …?” She called a private school in Houston, Awty International, and vouched for him, and sent his transcript. And he got in, and so did his siblings, all on full scholarship.
Clint applied only to Davidson.
He was the editor of the Perspective section for The Davidsonian, he wrote about homelessness in Charlotte for Lewis’ creative nonfiction course, and he did an independent study with Flanagan in which he wrote a manuscript of a young adult novel.
Something else: “Students typically will avoid professors who give them bad grades,” Ingram said. “He came back.”
One thing he didn’t do: play much for the soccer team. New Orleans was a central facet of his identity. So was success in soccer. Now it receded. He wondered: Who was he?
In the summer after his sophomore year, which he spent in New York interning at Scholastic publishing, he went one night to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a spoken word hub on the Lower East Side. It changed him.
When he returned to campus, he took Parker’s advanced poetry class, he put together an independent study with Parker and Ingram about the history of spoken word and slam poetry, he did open mics at the Black Student Coalition and in the 900 Room. And he read, and read, and read—fiction, nonfiction, poetry.
He tried to write about the storm. He talked about it, some, but he hardly ever said its name. The storm. Always the storm.
“Circle up,” Clint, dressed in a blue Oxford shirt and flat-front khakis, said to his students.
This was one of his last days teaching 10th-grade English at Parkdale, where 95 percent of the students aren’t white and 70 percent get free or reduced-price lunch. For Clint, it was far more than a job. The storm had illuminated inequities, in New Orleans and elsewhere; it had led him to a senior year at a school in Houston where his classmates had parents who were so oil-rich they had their own jets, where those classmates would have opportunities his classmates from Benjamin Franklin in New Orleans, the best public high school in Louisiana, almost certainly would never have; and it led him to Davidson, where he started to learn what he wanted to say, and how to say it. “I firmly believe,” he wrote recently in a book in which he was featured, American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom, “that solving the public education crisis is the civil rights movement of our time, and I want my life to be lived on the front lines.”
“Schools are not these isolated islands of problems,” he told me. “They’re reflections of their structurally deficient communities. And if we can figure out how to use this space, school, as the lens through which we observe and begin to tackle and begin to empower our kids to tackle the issues in their communities—I can’t think of a more effective space to do that.” In his classroom, a New Orleans Saints banner hung on the wall by his desk, next to his No. 12 Davidson soccer jersey, not far from the poster showing how many of his students were college-level readers. Eight at the beginning of the year. Then four more. Then 10 more.
“I’ve learned so much from every single one of you,” he told his students.
He asked them what they had learned.
“I learned that I can do things that I never thought I could,” one student said.
“I learned that school isn’t a waste of time,” a second said.
“I learned how to trust people,” a third said.
One student talked about how her parents were too busy working three jobs to show they cared when she made the honor roll. Another talked about her abortion. The others passed a box of tissues around the circle of desks.
Something they had taught him, Clint told them: “Other people’s struggles are my struggles, too.”
He asked them to write letters to their future selves. To their high school graduate selves.
What he wrote in American Teacher: “We will learn to read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, and tell our truth because that is the only way this world will ever listen to what we have to say.”
What he told his students now in his classroom: “We can’t really solve problems in the world until we figure out who we are. And that comes from stories.”
He asked them: “What kind of person do you want to be?”
They started writing.
His poems go on the page before they go on the stage. He writes, then he recites, over and over, in the car and the shower, until he’s ready.
He’s performed poems called “Letter to an 11-Year-Old Me,” “Aristotle,” Flash,” “Memoir,” “Place Matters.”
They’ve been viewed more than 600 times, more than 1,000 times, more than 2,000 times, more than 4,000 times, more than 240,000 times.
You should Google them. You’ll watch all of them until the end.
There’s another one called “My Father is an Oyster.” He’s performed it many times. The first time, though, it was for an audience of four—his brother and his sister and his mother, and his father, in Baltimore in a bed in a hospital room, just before his second kidney transplant. “I have a gift for you,” Clint said, and after he was done, after the three-and-a-half minutes, his father stood up, tears on his face, and hugged his son, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Washington. This past summer. The dark basement bar at the Black Fox Lounge. Clint held his hands together. Looked down. Gathered himself. Looked up.
Another first performance. A poem called “Translation.”
What sort of translation can I find
to explain that for a year after the hurricane
I drank bottles of Nyquil
just to fall asleep at night
trying to drown out the voices
of bodies more worthy of life
than my own.
No dictionary could help me explain
what it felt like to watch my home
become a corkscrew of broken could have beens—
a wilting carcass of bricks and lost breath.
What it felt like to watch my mother
see four generations of work drowning
In two days.
It took me seven years
to even say the word Katrina in a poem.
Google it. “Clint Smith” and “La-Ti-Do.”
Before you do that, though, let me tell you one more thing.
The TED talk about the danger of silence with the more than 1.9 million views? One of those was Deborah Hogg. She’s now retired from the admissions office. Another one was her grandson. She’s helping to raise him. And on their drive to his first day of high school, at Hough High in Cornelius, she showed him what Clint had said.
Tell your truth.
Silence is Katrina.
There is no time to pick your battles when your battles have already picked you.
“It’s about finding your voice,” Hogg said. “It’s about becoming yourself.”
Her grandson watched it. Then he started sharing it with his friends.