Jamele Adams’ face is as familiar to Old Rochester Regional Junior High as it is unfamiliar. The poet, activist, and dean of students at Brandeis University is no stranger to ORRJHS, as Principal Kevin Brigioli often invites the speaker to the school to engage the seventh and eighth grade in an exchange their regular everyday education simply cannot provide.
When Jamele Adams says something, he says it like he means it. And when he stands before the young faces lining the rows of the ORRJHS auditorium and his words reach their ears – words as hard as steel forged into a context that Adams wields like a poetic sword that stabs at the very heart of the zeitgeist – the knots of any preformed presuppositions that tie up the mind start to loosen with the unfolding of Adams’ unrelenting message.
In a flash, the first poem left the chamber with a ‘boom!’ that unleashed an unrelenting hail of words targeting racial ramparts and busting down barricades of beliefs with unprejudiced precision.
“Hey there, black boy…” the poet called out the way he has done before during the prior visits to the school.
Brigioli asked Adams to return to ORRJHS on March 18 to say a few words to this community of students in a way they’ve probably never heard them put before because, in the Tri-Town, this stuff never happens. Right?
And say a few words he did, and you know how he said them – he said them like he means them.
“Don’t do anything that might get you killed or locked up – close to home – that’s exactly where these boys are murdered.”
Words: Frisked – Unarmed – Under attack.
“Being human, start out as property – when you’re the anomaly, minoritized – just three-fifths of one – This is about deconstructing systems of oppression.”
More words: Privilege.
And then suddenly a “Good morning, everybody!” breaks out unexpectedly and snaps the quieted students into a smile that crashes into their own “Good morning!”
“Please rise,” Adams asks of his captivated company. “You all represent the dispelling of myth and the disbelief in the lower expectations people have of young people.”
More words: Humanity – Equity – Equality – Diversity – “Caring about each other. There are folks who don’t think that’s possible. Are they correct?”
“No!” they call back to Adams.
“You all care more than any other generation before your age, and yours is a legacy that will feed a legacy of activism that will follow you.”
Adams is indeed invoking the new generation of activists and its entirely new efforts of collaboration against the things that plague them like gun violence and outdated attitudes towards LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Turn to your neighbor,” Adams instructed. Willingly, they complied. “Say, ‘Neighbor – we need each other to keep each other free.”
Again, they listened.
“Now, say it like you mean it!”
Again, they spoke.
A mantra was established.
“The texture of your hair, the complexion of your skin, where you live does not predict where you will land or what you will be.” And this is so, Adams told them, because people are more than just statistics. “Statistics cannot account for what you have already overcome for your success … and what you are willing to go through for your success without hurting others,” Adams roared – like he meant it.
“You are more than and then some. Say it: ‘I am not a statistic!’”
The students woke up the entire building, “I am not a statistic!”
“Statistics do not define my identity!”
The kids said it, again, and again and they said it like they meant it.
“Statistics, move outta my way!”
And they said it, again, and they really meant it, again.
The topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, conceded Adams, “You cannot bottle it up in 45 minutes. It’s forever a work in progress.”
By now the kids were ‘LIT’ – an acronym Adams formed using love, inclusion, and trust.
Adams tried hard to hold each minute for as long as he could but with each word – Trust. Community. Together. Promise – the minutes fell to the ground and each word after was covered by the next and the next, as if time was a farmer and minutes were its seeds and the ideas that watered this new ground would keep it all intact while the young people shined on in the middle of their day over the diversity of their new garden.
“Diversity includes me, includes us all,” said Adams. “Diversity includes that which is not me.”
And the kids repeated it – like they meant it.
More minutes, more words: Tolerance – Respect – Dignity.
And still more words, the ones that sting; the ones that cause physiological responses, actual tangible sensations – and not just the N-word, but other words, too. The words that deliver pain with a delivery that equates violence.
Adams left the kids with a challenge, one they accepted, at least they said that they would like they meant it.
“Allow only love to leave your lips, even if it hurts,” he told them. Confront those who use words to inflict terror and ask them why, he said.
“There’s an honesty that usually presents itself.”
Stay LIT, he challenged them. And never be shushed into silence.
Then, in the words of Muhammed Ali, Adams said, “Repeat after me: ‘I’m the greatest.’ Say it like you mean it.
“Say, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t do something. Don’t tell me it’s impossible. Don’t tell me I’m not the greatest – unapologetic for who we are, we are the present, we are the future, driven by love.’”
And they said it, and they meant it.
By Jean Perry