His name is Taylor Mali. He is the four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam, a team competition pitting teams of poets against other cities. While he is the most decorated contestant ever, it is not his awards I want to focus on here.

When I stumbled across the above poem on HBO one night, I was taken aback. I didn’t know poetry was so raw, so real. Mali is powerful, representing the same passion he brings to his teaching. Mali is clever, quick-witted, and at the same time smooth, the same mind which puts together poetry and pens.

 

I had the pleasure to meet Taylor Mali when he came to the college where I tutor to give a reading. I picked him up at the airport, had dinner with him, and any worry I had that the strong, well-spoken man who so loved teaching was a phony, as is the case with many celebrities, was put to rest. He was genuine and kind, blunt but still respectful. He asked me to read before he did, a warm up so to speak. When I was done, he handed me a copy of his book What Learning Leaves. He had signed the book for me, making note of the poem I’d just read about grammar in hip-hop music being so bad.

 

I had many friends in the crowd that night. Some begged to come, others I demanded attend. My family was there too, my little sister also a big fan. She was too afraid to request a poem, so I did it for her. Taylor did in fact read that poem, and dedicated it to her by name on stage. My friend Mario was also in attendance. He said, “Anything you’re that passionate about is worth a look.” He left a fan.

In May, I stood up in Mario’s wedding. As part of my groomsman gift bag, Mario and his fiance gave me a copy of Mali’s new book, which I didn’t even know was on the market yet!

 

Mario also left me a poem in the gift package. It was, as far as I know, his first poem. While it’s not Shakespeare, the thought is amazing, and really hits home for me how important poetry has become in my life. My friends write poetry for me out of love and respect, and that’s an amazing thing. The inspiration I hope to get out of my students is evident in my friends and family already.

Having Mali inspire me with his words was gift enough. He gave me direction, awoke within me a passion I didn’t know existed. To have friends and family come along was also a blessing. I have since been to my sister’s special education class to give my presentation. I could see some of them light up when I read Mali’s “What Teachers Make” – minus the swearing of course. I could tell that for some of them, poetry was no longer a closed door, and for a teacher, who could ask for more?