“They brought a tall man to my cell!” one Free Minds member told his mother on the phone, so excited he momentarily forgot the name of his visitor. “We talked about poetry.” Already a prolific writer, the youth has been writing even more extensively since his encounter with 6’10’’ NBA Wizards player Etan Thomas.
Thomas, a published and dedicated poet as well as a basketball player, is leading a series of writing workshops for the members of Free Minds Book Club at DC Jail. In the first workshop, on May 1, 2009, Thomas spoke to the assembled teens about his own experiences as a youth, and his belief in the importance of the numerous small decisions that decide your path. Life is “just so many little choices,” he said, “but they have a big impact.”
In that vein, a theme of the workshops has been responding to “haters” or people that don’t want you to succeed. Thomas’ own experience with haters was one of the things that motivated him to start writing, he told the youth. By channeling the frustration he felt when people told him he couldn’t do something into poetry, he was able to move on and show them what he could do. “I started writing spoken word and poetry because I wanted to get it out,” Thomas told the Book Club. Then he performed one of his poems directed towards a coach who told him his dreams were impossible.
Free Minds poets have been writing their own poems about haters and performing them for each other. “People are going to tell you that you can’t make it, ’cause you made a mistake,” Thomas stressed, “and it’s up to you to believe them or not.”
After each workshop, Thomas returns to the unit to meet individually with book club members who were on lockdown and unable to attend the session. Talking through the crack in their cell door, Thomas reviews their work and offers critiques, as well as strong support to continue developing their craft. Etan encourages them to read as well. After he said that one of his favorite books is the Autobiography of Malcolm X, many Free Minds members requested the book to read immediately!
The excitement of the workshops is best expressed in the following poem by W.B., a 17 year old who wrote and performed it during Thomas’ second workshop:
When I Get Out
May 15, 2009
When I get out
I’m gonna be the best man that I can be
I’m even gonna go to college
I can’t wait you’ll see
I can’t wait to see the opportunity that’s
Waiting for me on the other side of the door
The opportunity to be an electrician that I wanted to be
Or even more
I got a lot of things planned for me
When I get out
But first I’m gonna finish my last year of high school
And that’s without a doubt
I refuse to be a dummy
Not knowing nothing
I want to learn a new vocabulary
Without that slang and cussing
When I get out there I just can’t wait
Man I just can’t wait!