This is the fifth story in a series called Education, Interrupted, which looks at how school closures during the coronavirus crisis are affecting individual students. Sign up to receive a regular newsletter from the Great Divide team. You can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas and tips.
Like a river refusing to be dammed, the poetry comes to Alondra Bobadilla. The Fenway High School junior waits for it, alert and ready, typing fragments into her iPhone as they surface. It is how she makes sense of her altered world — and it is also her official duty: in January, Alondra, 17, became the first youth poet laureate of Boston.
She was meant to blaze a trail across the city this spring, a charismatic young arts ambassador hosting readings and events to bring poetry alive for young people. Instead, with public life on hold, she sits at home in a quiet room in an oversized hoodie, her long, dark hair piled on top of her head, and, pressing the record button on her phone, begins to read an untitled poem she has written about the coronavirus shutdown:
It’s not often life is forced to a halt
Forced to slow down on command ...
It’s not often the noise is called to a whisper
And the bustle reined in
Her delivery is assured, but warm and full of feeling. When she is done, she edits the video lightly, then posts it on her YouTube channel for viewers to discover, her voice and words reaching them, one by one, in their own quiet rooms.
She lost one kind of opportunity this spring. But as her world shrunk and time seemed to stop, the young poet sensed another rising up before her.
For as long as she has loved poetry, Alondra has resisted writing about herself. She kept herself hidden, in the shadows, while she wrote about the things she saw around her. Absent fathers and abuse. Widening gaps between poor and rich. Teenagers wrestling with hopelessness. It was dark and real, but rarely intimate. “Being unknown," she says, "felt safe.”
When stillness descended unexpectedly in March, she sensed a moment made for self-reflection. She felt herself drawn inward, and she wondered: Could this be the test she was meant to take on now?
Only six months have gone by since a persistent chorus of teachers and friends hounded Alondra into taking a chance and applying for the new position. She was intrigued by the city’s plan to honor a gifted young poet, to elevate youth voices and arts education, as 40 other US cities have, but she didn’t think she had a chance of winning. Just the thought of it was terrifying: How could she ever find the courage to stand up and be vulnerable in front of her whole city?
She was shocked to land among 10 semifinalists, then stunned to learn, in January, that she had been chosen. The honor was ceremonial, but it came with enormous opportunities: the publication of a collection of her poetry. A space to work in at the Boston Public Library, and mentoring from Boston’s poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola. A scholarship to attend a weeklong summer program, Writers and Artists as Activists, at a historic art colony in Provincetown.
Overwhelmed, she spent weeks just getting comfortable with her fancy title, derived from a Latin word meaning “crowned with laurels.” She knew her two-year term would challenge her: to share her work with greater confidence, and to write poems that went deeper than she had ever dared to go. Slowly she warmed to the idea of being tested. She would stretch herself, and take her art to a new level.
Then, two months after her selection, the pandemic struck, shutting down the city.
The public role she had imagined disappeared. In time, some of her duties might shift online, allowing wider dialogue with young Bostonians. But for the foreseeable future, there will be no readings, no physical gatherings with groups of fellow students.
She felt the loss but held herself steady, knowing it makes no sense to fight what can’t be changed. And she recognized something rare and precious in the lull, for a young writer striving to know herself.
Would she rise to the challenge, and dig deeper? Line by line, she began to draft an answer.
I think of this as a golden moment
An opportunity to let the soul inside you speak buried truths
An opportunity to extend yourself beyond your limit
To pick up old instruments from which you once found purpose ...
To mend wounds that have been left unattended
To bring light to places that have for so long been abandoned
The possibilities gleamed with clarity, but life in quarantine, she learned, is messier. Online school assignments pile up daily. Her younger sister, a second-grader, needs help with her schoolwork. Their Hyde Park household is busy and full, with her mother, older brother, and stepfather there, too.
And then, last month, her mother got sick. The symptoms sent dread and adrenaline coursing through their home: fever, tightness in her chest,shortness of breath. Her mom moved into Alondra’s room and stayed there. Alondra slept elsewhere, worry drumming steadily inside her.
All at once, a distant threat was close at hand. And as her mother texted a steady stream of instructions from behind the bedroom door, and Alondra cooked, cleaned, and quelled her little sister’s fears, she felt the recognition of a hard truth grow in her.
“You have to remind yourself, this is not a normal situation, and try to let go of what’s normal,” she says. “We have to work with what we have and make decisions based on that."
She stopped writing, consumed with the problem at hand. Summoning all her confidence and fury, she advocated forcefully for her mother, e-mailing the governor’s office to demand a hard-to-get COVID-19 test. She succeeded, and the test results came back negative. Her mom took antibiotics and began to feel better. The scare brought the pandemic into sharper focus, and it left her stronger: She had been put to the test, and felt like she had passed.
She returned to her poetry (“like unpausing a movie,” she says), and grounded herself in the rhythms of her craft, “shooting up a prayer” to God each time she pressed record and read a new poem. She was offering comfort, ordering the chaos, just as poets have done throughout human history.
It felt pure to her, primal and purposeful.
“Even in the arts, there’s a focus on how to capitalize on things, on what’s good and bad, and it takes away from the joy of doing it,” she says. “There’s no right way to write a poem. ... My friends are writing now because it feels right. I’m writing for myself, my community, to stay sane."
Sparks of connection still fly from her work: when a former teacher, now living overseas, listens in on YouTube and sends an appreciative note. When she trades raw, unfinished work with a trusted poet friend, or leaps into an online open mike event, finding safe space among like-minded strangers.
She thrives on those moments of communion, as she has been since she first understood what poetry could do. The first time she read a poem at a schoolwide assembly, as an unknown freshman, she shook with fear. Her friend Alexandra Tennyson was there, and recalls witnessing a transformation — in Alondra, and in the crowd that hushed to listen.
“The mood in there, you could not describe,” she says.
Afterward, people came up to Alondra in tears. She cried too when she saw how deeply she’d connected. “When someone puts into words what you’re feeling, it’s freeing,” she says. “I wanted to keep doing that for people.”
After that day, she was braver. She became known as a poet at her school. Classmates joked about it sometimes, as if poetry was her secret weapon: Don’t get on Alondra’s bad side — she might write a poem about you.
It is true her poems can be fierce. A proud Boston native with roots in Dorchester and family and childhood memories all over the city, she is outraged by gentrification, the disregard she sees for the people and places she considers the “real" Boston.
Her poem “617” — a key submission in her youth poet laureate application — speaks up for the city’s most vulnerable residents:
Lost ones, caught up in a city that doesn’t want us …
I hope y’all haven’t forgotten the real Boston is still here
Our voices are here and our bodies are too
I hope getting rid of us is not what you’re trying to do
‘Cause if you get rid of us, Boston comes with us too
She trembled with fear again before reading the poem onstage at the Boston Public Library in January. It was the final showcase in the youth poet laureate competition, where each of the 10 finalists read a poem just before the announcement of the winner.
Alondra was “dying inside," she says. Yet there is no trace of anxiety in her impassioned performance, which ends with her tossing her hair back behind her shoulders and turning offstage as the audience erupts in cheers.
Hardest of all is turning inward. Her early family life taught her to wear a mask of strength, to minimize her painful experiences, she says. She didn’t talk about them, much less write them down.
The mask became a habit, deeply ingrained. Opening up felt shameful, even dangerous. In time though, with help from a close friend, she began to overcome her fear. She tried, especially in the pause of the pandemic, to let herself be vulnerable, and see the beauty in it — even when the self revealed was jumbled and confused.
“Searching me is like missing a piece from the puzzle/ even though the box is brand new,” she wrote in a poem called “Find Me” in February.
On a Monday afternoon in April — Patriots Day; a day off from online school — she began another poem. It felt uncomfortable to look within, as it always did, but she kept on going, picking up speed as she went:
her voice is the drums
the movement of her hands soft press on piano keys
there for a moment
then gone …
shes a blue flame
a light in the dark
so beautiful you think you can touch and not get burned
but fire’s still fire
no matter its color
Six weeks had passed since her last day at school with her friends. She still thought about the confusion of that day — how they had longed to stay close, but refrained from touching. She has learned so much since then, about herself and how to tell her story.
shes a little lost
a little lost
only time i can talk about myself is in third person
from a birds eye view ...
read i between want the to lines be please loved.
She keeps writing, trying not to judge herself, letting the words that surface be her guide.
“I’m being brave now,” she says.
E-mail Jenna Russell at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.