Syringes, barefaced drug deals, and consistent police activity are not secrets in the Tenderloin, but poems by students in the neighborhood expose the little-seen pride and hope of their often-feared and overlooked home.
“You see gum-covered, dark gray pavement,” Tenderloin teenager Britney Pirring writes. “I see a man on the pavement praying for help.”
Pirring’s poem “You See, I See” is one of dozens written by students at De Marillac Academy — a tuition-free Catholic school providing the only middle-school education in the Tenderloin — that brings a fresh neighborhood perspective from the kids who see it each day.
Each year for the past five years, De Marillac publishes an anthology by its eighth graders, who have had poetry integrated into their school experience since fourth grade. While many are regular kid musings about family, friends, and anxieties over high school, observations of homelessness, sex workers, and drug deals stick out.
For kids of the Tenderloin, being exposed to society’s failings is a regular part of their childhood.
“It just kind of flows into their poetry,” says Rich Hill, the lead eighth grade teacher at De Marillac. “It’s part and parcel of the challenges and also the opportunities they’re given on any day.”
The Bay Area Women’s and Children’s Center (BAWCC) estimated in 2016 that there are at least 3,000 children in the Tenderloin, making it the neighborhood with the highest density of kids in San Francisco. An American Community Survey from 2009-13 counts 2,579, but BAWCC says children in the Tenderloin have been historically undercounted.
Parents and children in a BAWCC survey said that the psychological toll of repeated exposure to drug use, unchecked mental illness, and criminal activity posed a greater risk to the long-term safety and well-being of kids in the neighborhood. This is where expressive outlets come in.
“Poetry helps me a lot,” says eighth grader Dayana Xiu. “If I’m feeling a type of way, I would write about it.”
Imagery of the Tenderloin comes alive in verses like “A whining ambulance rushing to save someone’s life” by James Sunga. Lesly Cazares observes local sex workers in a poem that reads, “Every night an old guy collects what they make at midnight.” Sean Hale wrote about “corner stores stocked with diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and cancer aimed at us with low prices.”
Like Juan Herrera, featured in the fifth volume asking why he often sees police handcuffing and searching someone on the street, the kids search for answers and solutions. What hasn’t surfaced is blame; it’s mostly sympathy.
Jesus Rangel once wrote about crack pipes, needles on the ground, and even weapons he sees on his way to and from school. Sergio Rios says one of his earlier poems talked about people living in poverty that kids see every day but that others don’t understand.
“Ignoring them — that’s terrible,” Rangel says. “Sometimes they just need someone to talk to, a smile.”
Any fear or anger that’s expressed in the published anthologies over moments — like drug dealers yelling to hide items from kids walking by — are often intertwined with hope for and pride in their neighborhood, like Tasbiha Latif’s words in “Dream Neighborhood”:
“Walking home from school,
People yelling, ‘Kids comin’ through!’
They realize what they’re doing is wrong.
But what difference does it make?
It makes a big difference.
People are trying to make
And so I see a dream neighborhood.
I close the album knowing
There might be a chance.”
City officials have heard poems at various neighborhood events and meetings, says De Marillac President and CEO Theresa Flynn Houghton. After requesting mobile bathrooms, which ultimately launched into the Pit Stop program, students read a poem after the Department of Public Works granted them.
“The students’ observations and voice are powerful, and we take the opportunity to amplify their voices when possible,” Flynn Houghton says. “It’s their home, just like if they grew up in the suburbs or a different part of the city.”
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj
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