The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amanda Gorman learned the power of poetry early on

Teachers recall the now 22-year-old inaugural poet’s keen interest in the form of writing.

Amanda Gorman reads her poem “The Hill We Climb” during the presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 20. Teachers at the school she attended in Santa Monica, California, said the 22-year-old was interested in writing and poetry from an early age. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Shelly Fredman, a third-grade teacher at the private New Roads School in Santa Monica, California, spent a good chunk of Inauguration Day in tears.

From her home she watched Amanda Gorman take the stage at the U.S. Capitol. And as the 22-year-old former national youth poet laureate stood before the Washington Monument and read “The Hill We Climb,” Fredman recalled the precocious little girl who would listen intently to her class readings.

Also watching were New Roads students — including a group of third-graders who recognized the poet. At Fredman’s request, Gorman had visited their virtual classroom, read their poems and sent individual feedback to the students.

Gorman credits Fredman with introducing her to the power of metaphor (a word or phrase used to relate two things or ideas). After hearing Gorman recite “The Hill We Climb,” the longtime educator thought: “If we do it right, they become the teachers.”

New Roads English teacher Alexandra Padilla watched the televised performance from her couch with her two children.

She still keeps a poem Gorman wrote in 10th grade, in the style of Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street.” Padilla declined to share the poem out of respect for her former student’s privacy. But she noted that Gorman’s “Girls Like Us” uses repetition to give a positive interpretation of a phrase used to look down on girls.

“Amanda’s a writer,” Padilla said. “So she read that book as a writer. Even then.”

Padilla remembers Gorman’s early ambition and resolve. After learning about Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who stood up for girls’ education in Pakistan, Gorman made up her mind to participate in an annual meeting on women’s rights at the United Nations headquarters in New York. She asked her high school feminist group to sponsor the trip but was told she was too young. Gorman applied for a fellowship through another organization. And she got it.

“She was that kind of student,” Padilla said.

Keren Taylor sobbed when she saw Gorman leave the inaugural stage. In 2001, she founded WriteGirl, an organization that pairs young local writers with mentors and runs workshops on various writing genres, or forms, including poetry.

Journalist Michelle Chahine Sinno, one of Gorman’s two WriteGirl mentors, also watched the inauguration from home. She recalled giving the young poet a book by Maya Angelou when they used to meet at a Santa Monica coffee shop. Now, at age 22, Gorman was following in Angelou’s footsteps, wearing a ring with a caged bird, a gift from Oprah Winfrey to honor the author’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

WriteGirl is open to Los Angeles students in grades eight through 12 who identify as girls or nonbinary, not strictly male or female. The group encourages participants to try every genre it offers, enabling them to broaden their skills and find new ways to advance their craft. The focus, said Taylor, is on ideas, words and personal development, not competition.

When hearing that a male classmate at Harvard University had told Gorman that her writing was “too confident,” Taylor laughed. WriteGirl mentors also model how to respond to criticism. She had no doubt that Gorman was able to hold her own.

More in KidsPost

Kids write in verse to honor planet Earth

Trash has long been treasure for poet Naomi Shihab Nye

Kids share poetry in new ways to make their voices heard