Nytesia Ross, a 19-year-old from Tyler, recently performed her original poem called "Teach Me" at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
She was one of five winners of a nationwide poetry competition about the challenges that students face as they try to graduate from high school, and her poem was addressed to high school teachers.
Ross performed "Teach Me" with the urgency and anger of someone craving an education but feeling unsafe in dilapidated classrooms, reading out of shabby, outdated textbooks.
The problem of teenagers giving up and dropping out was very real for Ross when she was a student at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler.
Some of her friends got pregnant, some had trouble with the law, some didn’t see much value in what they did at school, and got sick of spending all day sitting in chairs, being lectured at.
“You all made plans, this is what we’re going to do together. And to see someone take a different route … it’s kinda heartbreaking,” she said in an interview after her performance.
Ross admits feeling bored and frustrated in some of her classes. She often felt like her teachers didn’t believe she and her economically disadvantaged friends would amount to much, and gave them less than kids from richer neighborhoods.
“Your teacher is supposed to be teaching you the truth,” she said. “That’s one of the main problems I had – biased opinions would overwhelm the classroom."
She learned to speak her mind through poetry in grade school, when she wrote a poem called “I Am A Child Without A Dad.” Slam poetry isn’t for everyone, but Nytesia was a natural. Her mom encouraged her to keep writing.
“When anyone tells you your poetry is good, you want to keep doing it,” she said.
Ross is now a sophomore at Stephen F. Austin State University, majoring in radio and television with hopes of making a living as a poet and speaker.
Officially, about 90 percent of high school students in Texas graduate now, although there’s wide variety by race, family income, disability, and English proficiency.
The RAISE Up poetry slam competition was designed to remind people at the Kennedy Center and across the country that while dropout rate has mostly fallen off the public’s radar, there are still hundreds of thousands of kids struggling to get a diploma.
Watch Nytesia Ross’s performance and the other winners of the poetry slam.