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Poetry Helps Angry, Distant Student Emerge as School Leader

54th Street Academy junior Brianna Darin spoke about her battle with depression and anxiety on National Public Radio’s program “State of Opportunity,” explaining whatit’s like to be a child who feels like there’s no hope — and how she recovered.

“My mental illness is such a big part of my life because I have conquered it. And, I mean, yes, I still have days. But it’s nothing like it used to be,” she says in the radio piece. “And instead of leaving it behind, I wanted to make a stand. And I don’t want anyone to feel like there’s nobody, because that’s exactly how I felt. And it’s not OK to feel like that.”

When she enrolled at the alternative high school last school year she fit the definition of a troubled teenager. Brianna was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at age 10. She overdosed on pills at age 14 and spent time in Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and Forest View Psychiatric Hospital. She was expelled from Caledonia High School after being suspended numerous times.

By Brianna Darin

How can people be so blind?
Constantly surrounded by thousands going through the exact same thing–
As us

We flash them the same fake smile as the fake smile they flash us

Built up like walls to protect us from…us…

It’s not just the self-harmers
the ones taking shots at their own lives
Doing everything they can to crack the ice
that froze the day they first felt

There are those who cry themselves to sleep
every night. Or go outside knowing they will have to fight off eyes after eyes after eyes…

We’ve got to dig deeper than the conversations
Have you ever asked someone if they’re okay?
How many times have they told you
“I’m fine.”

I will say right now for the record they’re lying
But there is nothing more truthful than how far they go to keep their lie
a secret

And they want to yell the truth
but if they do the consequences will be

Worse than how they are feeling. They lock us away once they know we’re not the same because we have minds that can do incredible things but no one will give us a

Truth us we’re all the same but some of us are better at playing the game.
Some of us are already broken glass
So next time get past the conversations
Just ask.

But at 54th Street Academy she began to turn things around.

Now she has written poetry and spoken to a national audience about her mental illness and teachers have gotten to know a much healthier, happier Brianna.

“She used to be angry and distant and pushed the limits all the time,” said administrative assistant Ericka Scott. “Now she’s upfront when she talks to you. She’s supportive when somebody else has an issue. She not confrontational. She’s come a long way.”

What Brianna found was an outlet and a voice, she said, and she thanks pencil, paper and a crew of spoken-word poets called The Diatribe.

Healing Through Words

Wordsmiths G. Foster II, Marcel Fable Price, Rachel Gleason, Shawn Michael Moore and Kelsy May, who make up The Diatribe, host weekly workshops at the school, during which they encourage students to write and read their own poetry. They inspired Brianna to put into words what was making her sad, withdrawn and defiant. So she wrote, eventually gathering the courage to stand up and read her poems in front of class, with the cheers and finger-snaps of the rhythm-loving Diatribe bolstering her confidence.

“Since I was little I loved to write. When The Diatribe came it caught my attention. I fell in love with writing poetry and it helped express the things I couldn’t say,” Brianna said.

The Diatribe formed three years ago to create an ArtPrize exhibit for the Grand Rapids art competition. Members, mainstays in the local poetry scene, have diverse backgrounds and styles, and their work ranges from lyrical to rap-influenced, with internal rhyme and free flow. Their poems tell of personal experiences: being bullied, coming out as gay in a conservative town, abuse.

Their ability to relate to young people is what captured Brianna’s attention.

“They are like your friends, they aren’t trying to come off as a teacher,” she said. “They are mentors. They are trying to encourage you. They want you to do better in life.”

Price, who goes by “Fable,”said it means the world to him to see Brianna grow from quiet and withdrawn to having a commanding presence when she reads her poems.

“I’ve seen her evolove and grow so much,” he said. “She used to not want to talk about any of her issues. She’s now an open book. She’s transparent and confident. She’s a leader.”

Working with The Diatribe led to something even bigger. Fable connected with NPR and the opportunity for Brianna to tell her story. The 4-minute program, recorded and produced by Michigan Radio’s Dustin Dwyer, explains how Brianna views life much differently than she used to. She describes her experience with mental illness, her ascent out of depression and why she wants to share her story with others.

Being on NPR was a great experience, she said. “It was cool to hear the program and then to read comments (online). To see that it related to other people was cool and touching.”

Now Brianna said she is in a good place. She woke up one day feeling happy and wanted to change. “I decided, why be sad all the time if you can be better?” she said.

She said she hopes to continue with poetry, become a motivational speaker and continue outreach on mental health issues.

Rick Jackson, 54th Street Academy teacher, first invited The Diatribe to perform for students, which led to the weekly workshops. He sees how Brianna has changed.

“I think she is a great example of a student who has really grown leaps and bounds,” he said. “She’s gone from a student who would try to sleep through class and never turned her work in to a student who is now a leader in class and tries to help other students and is always happy to answer questions, participate and get all her work in. It’s been a complete turnaround.”

“She has a bright future ahead of her,” Jackson said. “It’s always so gratifying to see that all it takes is somebody to care.”


Brianna on NPR

The Diatribe

SNN Story on The Diatribe

Pine Rest

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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