Adolfo’s poems*

Sistas and Brothas United/The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development

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By Julie Rattey

*Based on the story of Adolfo Abreu. Some names have been changed for privacy.

Adolfo, 10, stared at the half-written essay in his hands and then threw it down in disgust.

I’m never going to pass English, he groaned inwardly, sinking his head into his hands. Outside the window of the apartment in the Bronx he shared with his mother, a siren wailed empathetically.

“That bad?” Adolfo looked up to see his 14-year-old cousin Wendoly standing in the doorway, a book cradled in her arms.

“I’m failing English, math, and social studies!”

“Your mom was saying,” Wendoly said sympathetically. “How come?”

“I just don’t get it,” Adolfo replied. “Like English class. I don’t like anything I read. And none of the characters are anything like me.”

“Hmm.” Wendoly looked down at the book in her arms, hesitated, then plopped it on his desk. “Try this one. I just finished; couldn’t put it down. And oh, by the way,” she added with a forced nonchalance that made Adolfo suspicious, “I told your mom I’d sign you up for tutoring and mentoring at Sistas and Brothas United. As a board member, I’ve gotta recruit people anyway, so, you know…”

Adolfo grimaced. “Thanks a lot.”

“Anytime!” Wendoly chirped, making her exit.

Adolfo glanced from his essay to the book. He may as well read a few pages — 10, maybe — to give himself a break. Maybe his brain would subconsciously come up with something good in the meantime…

“Adolfo! Dinner!” his mother called later.

Huh? Adolfo looked up. Had he just spent the past hour reading? Adolfo looked down at the book in surprise. He had to hand it to Wendoly; the book wasn’t bad. He marked his place before heading into the kitchen. Maybe if he got his homework done there’d be time to read more before bed….


The next day after school in the Sistas and Brothas center, Adolfo’s nose was buried in the book when his new mentor, a 14-year-old with a wide grin and a big Afro, confidently extended his right hand.

“I’m José,” he said. “But since I’m going to be your all-powerful, all-knowing mentor,” he grinned, “you can call me Mr. God.”

They shook hands. “Nice to meet you, José.”

José was nonplussed. “So.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and gazed around the tutoring room. “Let’s get out of here.”

Adolfo was taken aback. “Um, aren’t we going to talk about school?”

“Yeah,” said José. “Think you can do that and go for a walk at the same time?”

Adolfo suppressed a grin. “Yeah.” Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

As the two boys circled the center, breathing in the fresh fall air, they got to know each other. José talked about the center, and about how being involved in Sistas and Brothas United wasn’t just about getting, it was about giving back, too. Lots of kids who started out getting help from SBU ended up getting involved as mentors, board members, community organizers. Members had gone to rallies and helped educate people about racism and classism in the community. SBU even offered classes in things like Spoken Word. Adolfo had to admit it sounded kind of cool.

“Look,” said José as the conversation turned to Adolfo’s scholastic woes, “I know school is a pain sometimes. But you really need an education to get anywhere. Like to get a job. You want a job, right?”

“Yeah.” Adolfo fell into silence as he thought of his mother. She had quit school to go to work and raise Adolfo and was just starting to take classes again. Adolfo’s doing well in school meant a lot to her; it meant he could have a better future. He didn’t want to let her down.

“You’re kind of a quiet kid, aren’t you?”

Adolfo blinked up at José.

“Got any friends at school?” José pressed.

Adolfo shrugged. José reached a friendly arm across Adolfo’s shoulders. “Stick with me, my man.”




“Dude, she’s totally looking at you.”

Adolfo, 13, blushed and shifted in his seat at the edge of the lunch table, where he had placed himself to secure an unobstructed view of his classmate Janette, with her dark eyes and caramel-colored skin. Adolfo didn’t reply to his friend but glanced furtively at Janette. Their eyes met. His stomach lurched into a swift backflip. They both looked away.
“When are you going to ask her out?” his friend wheedled.

“Yeah, right,” grunted Adolfo. “Have you seen the way Felipe’s moving in on her?” Felipe, with his good looks and outgoing personality, was one of the most popular kids in school. Felipe was nice, too, which made it harder to hate him, even when he and his perfect hair were chatting up Janette at her locker.

Adolfo’s thoughts were still full of Janette’s warm smile and dark eyes when he got home that afternoon. After finishing his English assignment — homework was becoming less arduous with his tutoring at SBU — he found himself sketching out some of his thoughts and feelings, like trying to describe the backflip his stomach did whenever Janette’s eyes met his. Half an hour later, it occurred to him that he was writing a poem. Adolfo laughed out loud. He, the guy who had been failing English, was writing poetry!

Adolfo felt powerful, confident, and excited. His chest swelled with pride, then halted mid-rise. Some of the guys might think writing poems wasn’t macho enough. Then another thought — Janette blushing and smiling as he gave her his poem — intervened. Adolfo’s heart beat faster as he once more picked up his pen.




As Adolfo’s cell phone beeped, he snuck a quick glance to catch the text message from Janette: “Good luck 2day!”

He smiled, replacing the phone in his pocket, and sat up straighter in his seat in the Spoken Word class at SBU. It had been about two years since Adolfo had given Janette his first poem. She had blushed and smiled, just as he’d imagined. Though unfortunately his words were a bit late — she soon began going out with Felipe — Adolfo had continued to make Janette his muse. And at the moment, she was single again. The thought launched Adolfo’s stomach into some familiar gymnastics.

“Let’s hear what our co-president’s written this week.”

Jorman, the leader of the Spoken Word class at SBU, grinned at Adolfo, who smiled back nervously. He had been elected president of SBU in February, and had then joined the Spoken Word class. His poetry had really begun to grow over the past couple of years, both from all the practice he’d gotten writing odes to Janette and, more recently, from the class. “If you’re going to write a poem,” Jorman had always reminded him, “you really have to care.” Adolfo knew it was true; his best poems were those in which he really revealed his emotions. But that also meant, well, revealing your emotions. To a room full of people.

Adolfo smiled as he thought back to his 10-year-old self, failing in school and thinking that reading and writing were, for the most part, a waste of time. He thought of how his grades were improving, of how he had overcome his shyness enough to give Janette his poems, of how he had become active in his community through SBU, attending rallies and workshops and helping out at the local church. Of how he had recently decided he wanted to become a writer.

And if I’m going to be one, I better get used to reading my work
, he told himself. With Janette’s encouragement in his pocket to support him, he stood up, faced the class, and began.  CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from