This school year, WUNC partnered with the group Sacrificial Poets to host a series after-school programs called Poetic Justice. They’re designed to help under-served youth turn their life-stories into poetry and performance art.
This semester they were at Northern High School in Durham. That’s where poet Kane Smego, a writer and youth leader with Sacrificial Poets, met Justavis Monique Brooks. The 16-year-old senior graduates from high school today.
Usually when we imagine someone graduating high school at 16, we think: privileged. But for Justavis, the path has not been predestined or paved with entitlement. Her early success is a product of hard work and a bit of chance.
“Since my birthday’s like right after the school year starts, they went ahead and placed me up a year early,” Brooks says. “We moved around a lot—I went from Virginia to Pennsylvania. When I got to Pennsylvania, I found out I was way ahead of everyone else”
She finally landed in Durham where she finished up high school.
“Now I live in with my grandma, my two little sisters, my oldest cousin, and her two kids,” Brooks says.
It’s a full house, and Justavis sees herself as a role model for her relatives. But when the stage cradles her smile this afternoon, she won’t just be representing the family members that she sees on a regular basis, but also those who have been lost.
Her big brother Ralph was shot and killed when she was a 5th grader. She wrote a poem about it in our class:
People like me—we don’t sit around making blankets
and love baskets to ship overseas
Because our war is right here in our neighborhoods
Sons and daughters are being shot at
Brothers are being used for target practice when they walk out to the mailbox
And every single inch outside your home is a danger zone
Our only problem is, we can’t always locate the enemy
Justavis’ big brother lived with her dad at the time of his death. She imagines Ralph will be on her father’s mind as her watches her graduate today.
“I want to share the poem with my dad, but at the same time, I know how my dad is,“ Brooks says. “He’s really emotional, and I hate seeing my dad cry. But I know the poem will make him proud. I know it’s one of the things he needs to hear. So I’m hoping that when he hears it, he can find some closure, because writing it was my closure.”
Graduation day is a day for moving on. For Justavis, she’s heading off to college with a scholarship to attend Mary Baldwin in Virginia.
“A lot of my family members have graduated from high school, but not a lot of them go off and go to college,” she says. “So for me to be doing it so young, I think it hopefully will spark something in all of my younger cousins so that they can go and go back to school and finish school, and I want to set a goal for my little sister.
She’s already having an effect:
“My little sister Daja…she got skipped up to grade two, so I’m like ‘Yea! Following in her big sister’s footsteps.’”