THE HARDER THE RAIN FELL, the drowsier I got. It was a quarter of 5 on a Tuesday, and Georgia 400 looked less like a highway and more like the Chattahoochee River. If there was one, there were thousands of cars ahead of me return-commuting to the city. I couldn't get comfortable with the air on, the heat on, or the fan. The thunderstorm was a dark covetous carjacker, waiting for the slightest crack in my windows.
The way-too-enthused traffic reporter rattled off accident after accident after accident, before ending:
285 and 400 Southbound, blocking the two right lanes. Traffic is at a standstill.
Twenty miles ahead. Right where I'm going. And then my gig at Emory, 10 miles beyond that.
I nodded in the thickening air, fighting a quick nap before my 6:45 performance.
If I am to be completely honest with you, it is at moments like this that I wonder why I even bother.By the grace of God, I lay my head on my pillow at 5:45, and I thanked Him for a 10-minute nap. Except there is no such thing as a 10 minute nap.
You might not know this, but I don't particularly like public speaking.
Plus, at gigs like this, when I'm forced to perform poems which are "appropriate for high school kids," I feel like a green-afroed clown at a birthday party.
Granted, the gig does pay, which I'm thankful for; but between my day job, the traffic, and the rain, this makes me miserable - with a capital MISERABLE.
Thirty minutes later, half-asleep and half-ironed, I dashed through from my frontdoor through the tropical downpour to sit in traffic again. Except this time I had a dozen different routes to get to my 10-mile destination - 20 minutes to get there. Waiting were a couple hundred Georgia youth in the Communities in Schools Summer Leadership Institute. And so I floated behind Noah on his ark.
At each interchange, each intersection, I opted for the path of least traffic. 6:30. 6:35. 6:40. The Emory campus was at least three miles off the expressway. And I hadn't yet even exited.
You can just call and tell them that traffic was impossible. They'll understand. They have no choice.
You're pushing 30. What do you really have in common with these high schoolers?
Besides, you're scheduled to perform with another poet. He'll cover.
I was tired. I was hungry. I decided a hundred times to go back.
But I decided a hundred and one times to keep on.
After navigating the white-columned maze which is Emory's campus, I finally pulled into the designated dormitory parking lot at 7:10 p.m. Umbrellaless, I checked my itinerary beneath the softly blueing sky. At 6:45, I was scheduled to be shuttled from this parking lot to the campus building where the poetry reading was to be held. I was scheduled to perform in less than five minutes.
I watched one campus shuttle stop, then go by. And then another - stop, go by. And if there's one thing that I learned while in college, it is:
NEVER BOARD A CAMPUS SHUTTLE IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHERE IT'S GOING.
I wandered the rock-gardened courtyard looking lost for another couple of minutes when a gold minivan pulled up. The jolly driver was talking into his walkie-talkie.
"Excuse me, are you with the Summer Leadership Institute?" I asked.
"Yes," the driver said in an African accent, thick as his thighs.
"Well, I'm one of the poets - Ayodele."
"Oh, yes, yes, hop in! I'll take you just where you need to go." And we sped away through the green dripping trees.
He fumbled with his communication device. "I have one of de poet... De poet... Yes... I'm bringing de poet to you now."
Something interesting happens to me when people call me something like "de poet." Something transformative. Suddenly, I had fire where I had none before. My back straightened, my mind focused. I was now, not a worn-out corporate cog, but a shining diplomat of a centuries-old tradition.
"I'm sorry I'm running late. Traffic was terrible."
"Yes, yes. The rain. Are you from here?"
"Yes, I am. And you?"
"I'm from Ghana. My name is Prosper."
He chuckled. "Yes, Prosper." He shook my hand.
Prosper dropped me off on a sidewalk, where an escort in a black Summer Leadership tee-shirt was waiting with another passenger in a golfcart.
"He'll take you where you need to go," Prosper said.
My new escort laughed, nudging his other passenger. "He told him his name was Prosper." This passenger, apparently part of the program, too, seemed to get a kick out of it. Apparently some Leadership humor. I didn't get it, but at least they were good-natured!
I climbed onto the back of the golfcart, and we zipped down the sidewalk.
"So, what have the kids been doing so far?" I asked.
"Well, earlier today they had some leadership training and worked with conflict resolution. Tonight, they're learning salsa dancing, doing some painting, and getting some spoken word."
Salsa dancing? Painting? Me? That's so... cultural. Sometimes I have to be reminded who I am....
When I finally arrived at my destination at about 7:25, there was a mixed group (in Georgia, this means roughly half Black & half White) of about a hundred youth in a small theatre, listening to someone on-stage reciting a poem - someone who was not the other poet I was scheduled to perform with.
The program participant yelled. "Don't kill yourself! Don't kill yourself!"
There were scattered laughs across the audience.
"This ain't funny, y'all. This is real!" she continued.
She sounded like a bad afterschool special, pacing back and forth, whipping the microphone cord across the stage like a tail.
"Look, I still got the scars," she said, offered up her razor-sliced white arms, half-laughing.
"Killin yourself is stupid! Killin yourself is stupid! This ain't no joke, y'all. This is serious!"
And as she continued riffing for another couple of minutes, completely sabotaging her personal testimony on suicide, it all sunk in:
This is their idea of what spoken word is. This is why you're here.
J_c___a, the program coordinator, beamed the moment she recognized me from across the room. She cleared her copper dreads from her face, and shortly took the mic.
"Let's give it up for C_______!
"I want to thank all of you who shared your poetry, and now I would like to introduce our special guest..."
She rattled off my bio. And as she said it, I said to myself, Gee, she makes that guy sound really important.
Then, I thought, Hey, that's you. You better hurry up and be somebody important!
Between the end of her introduction and my trot to the stage, I completely forgot about the rain. I forgot my fatigue, my hunger, my impossible commute. Clowns at birthday parties bring joy to people's lives, as do I. But I was not here to simply entertain; I was here to inspire and to teach.
I did a 20-minute set of poems. Naturally, they loved it ;-). The greatest joy was seeing my light, reflected back in their eyes - the students as well as the adult chaperones. In a small way, I had changed a hundred lives. Which is really payment enough.
It turned out the other scheduled poet wasn't able to make it after all. I'm glad that I was able.