April is Poetry Month, and to celebrate, we’ve been sharing an excerpt each week from a book that celebrates the beauty and power of poetry! This week, we’re spotlighting American Girl’s 2017 Girl of the Year, Gabriela.
About the book: Gabby loves expressing herself—especially in the dance studio—but lately, poetry is becoming her art form of choice, and for good reason: Gabby struggles with stuttering, and spoken word poetry helps her speech flow more freely. Still, compared to how confident she feels on the dance floor, speaking up can be scary. When the city threatens to close her beloved community arts center, Gabby is determined to find a way to help. Can she harness the power of her words and rally her community to save Liberty Arts?
Start reading chapter one from Gabriela right here!
Chapter 1: Like a Roller Coaster
Each move burst into my head like a shout. All around me the air was filled with the sounds of tap shoes scraping and stomping, Mama calling out the next step as she snapped in time to the rhythm of the music. Above me, the sun poured through Liberty’s stained-glass windows, leaving little pools of colored light on the floor at my feet.
I stood on my right leg and whirled around, careful to find my spot so I wouldn’t get dizzy. My spot was always the same in dance studio number seven: The hollowed-out square cut into the wall right between the two big mirrors.
A phone niche, Mama called it, from the time when phones were so big people had to literally carve out space for them.
My feet flew over the dance studio’s worn wooden floor, from one puddle of light to another, and soon my heart was pounding out a rhythm in time with the beat, like the music and I had become one. I couldn’t help it. I closed my eyes. I knew what Mama would say if she caught me: “Gabriela McBride, you know how unsafe that is? And you can lose your place that way!”
I did know that, but I knew Liberty better. Knew every spot on its dance floors, scuffed white from years of dancers like me stomping, turning, and tapping. And I knew that when I opened my eyes, a few beats from now, I’d see Liberty’s painted-over brick walls, exposed heating pipes, and its tin-tiled ceiling. And I’d have no trouble finding my place.
“And . . . finish,” Mama said as she turned the volume down on the old sound system we used during tap rehearsal. The music faded and then disappeared. I opened my eyes just as Mama began to clap.
“If I didn’t know any better,” said Mama, “I would think I was in the presence of Savion Glover’s dancers.”
Mama beamed at each member of the Liberty Junior Dance Company in turn. When her eyes met mine, she winked. I winked back.
Mama, or Miss Tina as all the other students called her, was the founder and executive director of Liberty, also known as Liberty Arts Center, a community center she’d started seventeen years ago. Not only was Mama the “Big Kahuna” (that’s what Daddy called her), she was also the director of dance programs, which suited her just fine. Mama, with her strong, powerful legs and fluid movements, always said dancing came naturally to her, like breathing. And then she’d say, “It’s like that for you, too, Gabby.”
It was true. Dancing came to me as easily as coding came to my best friend, Teagan, or the way words came to my cousin, Red. Or the way words seemed to come to almost everyone else, except me.
I glanced up at the clock as Mama instructed us to take a seat on the floor. My heart was still racing, and as the clock crept closer to six, my pulse sped up. I had somewhere important to be.
“Excellent work today, ladies! You’re almost ready for our Rhythm and Views show next month.”
Five fifty-five. I stared at Mama, willing her eyes to meet mine. When at last she looked over at me, I looked at the clock and back at her. She nodded. She hadn’t forgotten she’d given me permission to skip ballet rehearsal and go to the poetry group meeting instead. I half listened as Mama rattled off dates, expectations, and information about costumes.
“Remember how much Rhythm and Views means to Liberty and to the wider community,” Mama said. “Sixteen years this show has gone on, and people always come up to me and say—”
I finished Mama’s sentence in my head: that they look forward to this day all year. The Liberty community loved the show because we got to celebrate all the hard work we’d done in the last year. Art students got to exhibit their work in the lobby and guests could even purchase the artwork, just like at a real art gallery. The dance companies performed the pieces we’d been perfecting all year. An empanada take-out joint from across the street catered the snack bar, and everyone’s friends and family came out for the show. It was like a block party, cookout, and concert all rolled into one, and it was my favorite day, too.
Mama finished her speech and then clapped loudly again, her way of signaling that it was time to go.
I jumped to my feet, ran over to where I’d left my bag, and tore off my tap shoes. In four seconds flat, I was bolting toward the door in my sneakers, pausing just long enough to wave to Mama. She smiled and shook her head. I guess she was as surprised as I still sometimes was that I was in a hurry to get to a place where I’d have to stand up and talk in front of other people.
See, talking wasn’t like dancing for me. When I danced tap or hip-hop, I could speak with my feet. My hands. My whole body, if I wanted to. I could make one move quiet as a whisper, the next loud as a shout. But sometimes, when I opened my mouth, it was like my words started to second-guess themselves. Like they weren’t sure if they wanted to come out and when they finally did, I started stuttering like crazy.
But not all the time.
Like when I was racing to the dance studio where the poetry group met, I ran straight into Amelia Sanchez, my ballet instructor. “Whoa, Gabby, slow down,” she said, laughing. “I spoke to your mom. You’re going to make up tonight’s missed rehearsal, right?”
“I definitely am,” I said, without a single stutter.
I kept on going. And when I ran into good old Stan, the friendliest janitor ever, he said, “Where are you hurrying off to, Gabby?” and I replied, “Poetry club meeting. See you later!” without missing a beat.
Mrs. Baxter, my speech therapist at school, told me that people who stutter don’t do it as much in places they feel comfortable. That’s why my speech was hardly ever bumpy when I was in our little white-and-blue house on Tompkins Street with Mama and Daddy or at Liberty, because both places were home to me, both places filled with family. Like Amelia, who I’d known since she was nineteen and I was six. She taught me how to spot on my turns by challenging me to a staring contest. “Every time you turn, I want us eye- to-eye.” Even now, four years later, if Amelia thought I wasn’t spotting she’d gently say, “Staring contest, Gabby,” to remind me. Stan was like family, too. I’d known him my whole life—he’d been the janitor at Liberty ever since Mama opened it.
“Hold on there now,” Stan called out, and I stopped in my tracks. “Poetry’s been moved to the auditorium, hasn’t it?”
Shoot! How had I forgotten? I took off in the other direction, calling, “Thanks, Stan,” over my shoulder as I went.
By the time I made it to the auditorium, the whole group was already up onstage. For the second time, I stopped in my tracks. I’d danced on that very same stage plenty of times, but today was the very first time I’d have to speak on it. I gulped.
“Gabby, over here!”
Teagan called to me with a frantic wave of her hand. The poetry group had made a circle onstage in front of the heavy red curtain, and Teagan had saved me a seat right beside her.
“I’ve got everything ready to go,” she whispered to me, reaching up to adjust her beanie over her strawberry-blonde hair. There were two things Teagan was almost never without: her coding notebook (she’d named it Cody) and her turquoise beanie.
“Got what ready to go?” I asked.
“The you-know-what that we’ve been working on?” Teagan wriggled her eyebrows. “You know, the surprise?”
“Oh, right!” I wiped my sweaty hands on my leggings.
“Are you okay, Gabby?”
“Y-Yes,” I stammered. But Teagan knew me better than almost anyone.
“You’re nervous about saying your poem in front of Bria and Alejandro, right?” Teagan sat up on her knees and faced me. She was in full-on Teagan Problem-Solving Mode. “Just relax and remember to think about each word before you say it. Give it time to form in your mind. Don’t rush. Okay?”
I nodded again. “Okay.”
Just then, my cousin Red emerged from behind the curtain, rubbing his hands together and smiling big enough to show off the right front tooth he’d chipped last summer when he hit a curb and flew over the handlebars of his bike. “All right, poets,” he said. “Tonight we say bye-bye to that old dance studio and hello to the stage. We’re big-time now, ready for crowds skyscraper-high touching clouds.”
Red had been staying with my family for the past four months, ever since his mom, Mama’s sister and a military doctor, had gotten called back to active duty. At first, I didn’t like Red being around too much—for the first few weeks after he arrived, I called him the Interloper until Mama and Daddy told me to stop. But it wasn’t my fault Red was always in the upstairs bathroom exactly when I needed to use it. Plus, he was loud, like two-trains-crashing-into-each-other loud, and he never missed a chance to remind me that he was going into seventh grade and I was only going into sixth.
But, I had to admit Red had a way with words. He could spin a line of poetry like I could pas de bourrée. He lived and breathed poetry, and wanted to bring it to Liberty in the form of a club—nothing too formal. Mama was 100 percent behind the idea and, because I was supposed to be showing Red he was welcome and not an interloper, Mama said, “Gabby, you should join, too.” She’d made it sound like a suggestion, but it was really an order.
I hadn’t wanted to join at first—spoken words are your enemy when you stutter—but words just seemed to flow whenever the poetry group got together. Even mine—most of the time.
“So, the Rhythm and Views show is our first chance to show everyone what we’ve got,” Red was saying.
I imagined Teagan’s grandfather, who was the visual arts instructor and the unofficial program director, prepar- ing his art students, too. Everyone—dancers, artists, and this year, poets, too—was a part of Rhythm and Views, and everyone needed to be ready.
“And we need to show them that we’ve got mad talent,” Red was saying. “Which is why everything’s got to be perfect. Our poems, the order, everything. Alejandro, can you handle the spotlight for me?”
“On it,” Alejandro replied. He was tall and pencil-skinny with thick black hair that came to the middle of his back. Red sometimes liked to joke that Alejandro’s hair weighed more than he did. As Alejandro rose and climbed up to the lighting booth, Red pulled a list from the front pocket of his shorts. On it was a list of names. The order of performances. I was first.
“Ready, Gabby?” Red asked. “You can do it. You’re big-time now.”
“Ready for crowds,” a girl named Bria chimed in.
“Skyscraper-high,” shouted Alejandro, coming out from the booth at the back of the theater.
“T-Touching clouds,” I finished quietly.
“Yes!” Red cried, clapping loudly. Soon everyone else joined in.
As I got to my feet, the applause died down. “Take center stage, Gabby,” Red said, pointing.
I moved to the middle of the circle and looked out at the sea of chairs. The spotlight shined directly on me. Big-time now, ready for crowds.
“Ssssssspeaking ough-ought to be—” I began, and then I stopped. My face grew hot. I hated stuttering in front of my friends. Maybe I could tell Red to come back to me at the end.
“You were doing great, Gabby,” Alejandro called out. “Keep going,” said Red.
“Slow down and think about each word,” Teagan put in. Mama and Daddy were always telling me that while it was good to work with Mrs. Baxter, I shouldn’t let my bumpy speech stop me from talking.
“We love you no matter how many sounds you make,” they’d say. “Say what you have to say! We’re always listening.”
“Okay.” Another deep breath. Then I started over.
“Speaking ought to be, ought to be like . . . like breathing
Words always there, no need for . . . reaching
Like cracking a jjjjjjoke is for a joker
But for me it’s like a roller coaster . . . coaster”
I paused. I knew this poem and even bigger than that, I knew these people. Red. Teagan. Alejandro. Bria. I knew this space, too, Liberty’s auditorium. I knew there were 480 seats, but only 476 worked. I knew seat 3L was the best in the house, that one of the angels carved into the balcony was cross-eyed, and that there was a corner where every word you said echoed throughout the auditorium, even if you whispered. You’re home, Gabby, I told myself, and picked up my poem where I left off.
“Up, up, up and then racing . . . racing to the g-ground
Words flying by me that I can’t pin down
Words soar past me, whip my face like . . . like air
In my mind, in my heart, everywhere
I . . . I ch-chase those wwwwords down
But when I try to speak, I don’t make a sound
Up, up, up and then racing to the ground
Words flying by me that I can’t pin down
Sometimes my words get caught
Come grinding to a halt
I slip, I fall, I stutter
But it’s not my fault
Up, up, up and then racing to the ground
Words flying by me that I can’t pin down.”
The applause was instantaneous. So was my smile. I’d made it through my whole poem, and by the end I wasn’t stuttering at all! I took a deep, exaggerated bow. And then another, and then curtsied until the rest of the poetry group was either laughing or calling out, “Brava, brava!” or “Encore, encore!”
Red, still beaming, held up his hand for silence. “No time for encores, but awesome job, Gabby.” He walked over and gave me a high five. “Bria, you’re up.”
Bria, a tall, round-faced girl with a big, bushy ponytail, took center stage as I slid back into my place next to Teagan. Bria, like Alejandro and Red, was going into seventh grade and when Red had told her about the poetry group, she’d joined immediately.
“Nice job,” Teagan mouthed. Then she reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a flash drive. “Ready for later?” she whispered.
I nodded. I felt ready for anything.
The rest of the performances flew by, and I still couldn’t believe how far we’d all come since Red had first started the poetry club. And even more than that, I couldn’t wait for the show. Poetry, dancing, and—
“Gabby and I have a surprise,” Teagan announced, just as Alejandro, the final poet, took his seat. “We’ve been working on something for the show, a little something visual to go with our poetry. Wait right here.”
Teagan jumped to her feet, pulling me with her. We darted around the curtain and backstage, where there was a laptop sitting on top of a podium. Wires snaked down the side of the podium like vines. To anyone else all of those wires would have been intimidating. But not to Teagan. In one smooth motion, she plugged the projector adapter into the laptop, inserted her flash drive, and said, “Can you get the main power switch for the podium and projector?” She pointed at a black box hanging on the wall behind us. It looked like a very large, very expensive version of the cir- cuit breaker in our garage, only, I realized after pulling the box open, much more complicated. Inside were three rows of buttons and switches, all glowing a faint shade of neon green.
“On it,” Teagan replied, and hurried over. She pointed at a big silver button on top of all the others. “This one turns on the main power for all the stage equipment. It’s kind of cool how it all works. You see, this main box controls—”
“Teagan,” I cut in. Sometimes, when Teagan started talking tech, she couldn’t stop.
“Sorry!” Teagan said, laughing. “Ready?”
I nodded. We reached for the button, both of our fingers pushing it at the same time.
And everything went black.