Jimmy Santiago Baca has a mythical quality about him that is unparalleled in my experience. As a veteran educator, school administrator, and fellow of the National Writing Project, I’ve been in the company of and listened to many poets and writers during my career. Over the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of observing Mr. Baca in a variety of settings, and it has been nothing short of magical.
A colleague of mine first introduced me to Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand in 2005, and since that time I have read nearly all of his works. I unabashedly admit that I am a fan. In November of 2008 in San Antonio, Texas he dazzled a packed ballroom of teachers from around the country during the National Council of Teachers of English convention. At the end of his talk, I asked him if he would consider coming to my large, urban school district, and he quickly agreed. I had no idea if I could find the funding, but I was committed to making it happen.
When I returned to Pennsylvania, I managed to secure funding from two sources and he visited with us in April of 2009. That year he focused his attention on our high school students, including those in our alternative education school. I will never forget how deftly he managed to draw our students into his magic circle. In the quiet of the library students read pieces about passing through multiple foster homes and losing parents and siblings to violence. One young man said he had no poetry or prose to share, but he belted out an acapella song that graced everyone in the room. In the evening, Baca spoke to teachers from our region. He lured many dark memories into the light using his well-spun stories. When we parted that night, I asked him if he’d be willing to return in 2009 to work with our middle school students.
And so, in November of 2009, Jimmy Santiago Baca returned to us. This time he spoke to hundreds and hundreds of students in auditoriums and gymnasiums because I wanted as many of our young people as possible to hear his life story and his words. As I watched from the periphery, I was mesmerized by his ability to read his audience and make a large venue seem like an intimate chat. This year a young lady who had been bullied by her peers at the start of the year offered to sing to him. I still get the chills when I remember how courageous she was to stand in front of hundreds of those same peers, this time greeted with thundering applause rather than ridicule.
In March of this year, Mr. Baca invited me to join him at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he spoke to a standing room only crowd of students and faculty. In true Baca form, he was generous and witty and kind. I’ll never forget a diminutive young woman with flawless skin who approached him in her wheelchair at the end of his book signing, just as the line began to dwindle. She asked him about how she might allow herself to be more vulnerable in her writing. He leaned toward her and told her to come in close and tight so he could speak with her. At that moment, everything else in the room dissolved and, once again, I witnessed the sweet sound of Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Denise VanBriggle, Coordinator of Writing and Secondary Literacy
Harrisburg City School District, Harrisburg, PA 17110
Stories from the Edge, and its companion teacher's guide, Adolescents on the Edge, extend Jimmy's efforts with Cedar Tree, Inc. Cedar Tree Inc. is a nonprofit foundation that seeks to transform lives through reading and writing. They conduct literary workshops in prisons, detention centers, community centers, and schools for at-risk youth. Their mission is to offer under-served communities the tools to overcome obstacles to learning. Drawing on participants' life-based experiences, Cedar Tree, Inc. workshops change lives forever. The following are some related reviews by teachers and students. Click here to read more testimonials and learn more about Cedar Tree, Inc.
I teach 9th grade English at a high school in Long Beach, California. Several years ago I came upon "I am offering the poem" and have used it in my poetry unit ever since.
The neighborhoods where our students live are among the most violent in the country. Many of our kids gravitate towards the gang life or simply fade into the background, hoping no one will notice them. This poem, along with Baca's personal history, has been an invaluable "hook" to help my kids experience the freedom of expressing their feelings in a safe, intelligent way. Every year I am amazed at their honesty and candor.
So, let me say how very grateful I am to have found this poetry. Thanks.
Teacher, Long Beach, CA
Our particular situation is concerned with the plight of second-language learners in the rural communities of the San Joaquin Valley. Time and time again, it has come to our attention the desperate needs of our students. Many of our students hate reading. They cannot connect to literature. They cannot write or at least they have not been given the inspiration to tell their stories.
While we are able to recognize their difficulties, we are only capable of sympathizing with their situation and we are unable to do so, because we are a bunch of privileged middle class idiots who did everything by the book high school, college, career. We understood the school game and played it well. Our kids do not have any clues as to how to play the game and frankly they don’t give a rat’s ass. However, recently, we have shared your writing with them and they genuinely seemed consumed by it. The reason being you wrote their story. They saw themselves in you. Your writing is able to draw an emotional response from them yet they do not have the words to explain what that response is all they know is that they connect and are acutely aware of the powerful impact it has on their soul.
J. L. and D. B
Teachers, San Joaquin Valley
I have a young man in my English II and III classes who claims to have never read a book or even a chapter out of a book who is now profusely reading, A Place to Stand. It is an amazing transformation to watch a student connect with a writer; much less a student who has flunked English more times than he can count and who claims to have never read a book. I believe this is a compliment to you, sir, for writing what he calls "a real book." He has somehow connected to literature through you; a personal epiphany of which has opened his world to the written word. He has even asked me to order him another book from your extensive writing and has now seen that you have one forthcoming. He is going to send the book that he has read to another friend of his. Thanks for your words, the inspiration, and the connection.
Teacher, Sabina, Texas
Greetings! I teach Adult Basic Education and GED classes to adults in homeless shelters and treatment facilities throughout the city of Springfield, MA. I have been bringing in your poems and interviews you have given that are posted on your web site, and read them together with my students. They have been extremely inspired and transformed by your words, images and life stories. Many of my students are African-American and Hispanic men who have been through the prison system and your words rip open their hearts like wild fire.
GED Instructor, Springfield, MA
I am truly inspired by you. especially your ability to stay strong in the most terrible situations. So I am very proud of myself after finishing your book, since I wouldn’t dare read the crap they give you in high school and just so you know your book has been the 4th book I have ever completed all the way through.
Student, San Diego, CA
I am a passionate career high school teacher and have used many of your poems in my classes with great success. Currently, I am a teacher in Tacoma, Washington. [High school] is a high poverty, diverse, urban school. One student in particular, C. U., was deeply committed to your story. You have had a great impact on C. U. and you have validated, inspired and galvanized his own Latino pride. For the last year I have watched C. U. grow from a mediocre writer to one of the best writers in his class. I know that this is 100% credited to the influences you have had on him.
I thought you might be interested in the introduction C. U. wrote for his Literary Analysis essay on your book. I am including it here for you.
“Envision a tree alone in the middle of the desert with a creeping storm headed its way. Its roots and branches are held strong with pride to endure every bit the thunderous and brutal impact. That same tree is Jimmy Santiago Baca. A Place to Stand is a wild rapids ride through waves of poverty and clashes with abandonment. Although his life is filled with betrayal, love, violence and death, Jimmy still finds hope in even the most desperate of times. Having had lost his father to alcohol and abandoned by his mother, Jimmy found his passion for poetry in a maximum-security prison. This tree triumphed the storm.”
Peace and Inspiration,
Teacher, Tacoma, Washington
I am writing to you, mainly, because of your book, A Place to Stand. In so few words, your book hit home. Your life, as you open it up and make it public to your readership, provokes thoughts, ideas, reflections. I live in Chicago, Illinois. Last night I was leafing through the Chicago Sun Times, November 11, 2006, and read your piece on the "importance of self-discovery through literature." Your article was based on your visit to the Cook County Jail here in Chicago. I support, embrace, and believe that reading, discovery, introspection, self-examination, among other ideas of relating to oneself in this greater life and society are all-important.
I work with inner city youths who come from troubled backgrounds. I have actually bought copies of your book and given them to some of the kids I work with. This is all in the hope that they can learn about another human being's struggle, another human being's human condition, and what it took to overcome many obstacles. I would like to let you know that your work is greatly appreciated. You are an American voice from a Latino origin that is doing much to awaken Latino youths. It is a process and does take time for some of our youths to understand that there are other roads, other avenues, other options to explore and to not succumb to self adversity, becoming one's worst enemy.
Mr. Santiago-Baca, you are right! With education, self-discovery, one can actually make change work, make change possible.