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The Poetry of Pain: Slam Poet Gayle Danley Teaches Kids How to Soothe Their Wounds
The Bradleys didn't have children of their own. Then, Laverne's older sister, Lucille, brought baby Gayle over for a visit, he says, and "it was like I picked her up and didn't put her down. I said, 'Let me just have her for a little while,' and we did, and we had her ever since."
"It was not so much that [my mother] left me, but that my aunt and uncle found me," explains Danley, who still saw Lucille and her two older siblings, Melanie and Troy, a few times a week. But it was Laverne and Derry who were "Mama and Daddy." They treasured Danley, even when she got into trouble at school for being too chatty and disruptive.
"One of the teachers was my friend," Bradley says, "and she would call me about once a week and say, 'You need to come get Gayle because she is cutting up. She's just talking.' I said, 'The child's going to be a lawyer.' "
Danley's heart was only in English class. "When it was time for math and all those numbers, I was real confused," she says. "But when it was time to open up a brand-new book, when it was time to learn a word" -- her voice rises dramatically -- "when it was time to spell a word, when it was time to speak a word, it was intoxicating."
By the time she attended Howard University, where she studied broadcast journalism with an English minor, there was little doubt that there was talent in that mouth of hers.
Toya Watts, a close friend and Washington public relations consultant, remembers being in a sociology class the first week of freshman year, when the professor singled out Danley to read a chapter from the textbook. "She just got up in front and started reading," Watts says. "I was just in awe. I'd never seen anyone so animated and so beautiful and could just deliver a line that, you know, could make you feel it."
Danley competed in the Miss Howard University Pageant a few times, where she'd do monologues in the talent portion of the competition. She made a respectable showing in one pageant after performing a piece about a woman speaking to her mother at her grave. It was, of course, what she'd now call poetry, but "I didn't see it that way," Danley says. "I thought poetry was about rhyming."
At Deerfield Run, one boy asks, "What inspired you to be a poet?"
"I'm not good at anything else," Danley replies. "Except cooking."
She's finished up the assembly and has moved to an empty music room to meet her first class of the day, a group of 25 sixth-graders. She asks them to stand up, raise their hands and repeat: "I am a slam poet!" ("I am a slam poet!") "I can do this!" ("I can do this!") "I'm a word bird!" ("I'm a word bird!") "Watch me fly ... " To start the writing process, she tells the 11-year-olds, "I want you to close your eyes [and picture] when something changed in your life and how you felt that day." After a minute or two, she asks, "Anyone saw something when you closed your eyes and it kind of made you sad? Or real happy?"
A few students nod. Danley calls on those with raised hands with, "Yes, princess," "Go ahead, gorgeous," and "Talk to me, handsome."
A girl in a polka-dot shirt tells the class about the day her dad took her shopping and told her to buy whatever she wanted. Then he bought her lunch, she says, and announced that he was leaving town. "I never saw him again," the girl tells the class, through tears. "I really miss him." Gayle gives her a tissue, holds her hand.