Jerlan Payne speaks with a soft, unassuming confidence that immediately impresses her listeners and captivates her audience. One would not be surprised, then, to learn that this inspiring University of Chicago Charter School Woodlawn Campus sophomore can already list performing with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma on her résumé of accomplishments. However, it was not always that way for Jerlan. In fact, before her best friend showed Jerlan the poetry of her own words, Jerlan was a student struggling to find her voice—and make the grade.
Bothered by pessimistic statistics about young African Americans, Jerlan initially started writing to cope with being constantly bombarded with negative images of students like her. Jerlan didn’t want to become a statistic. It was her mother’s advice that propelled her into transcribing her thoughts instead of engaging in detrimental activities. Her mother offered writing as an alternative to fighting. “A pen and a paper [are] the strongest voice you could ever have, because [what they produce] is permanent,” Jerlan recalls her mother advising. And Jerlan listened.
Jerlan’s best friend read some of her early work and not only encouraged her to continue, but showed Jerlan that she had unwittingly begun to craft her art. “I wasn’t trying to write poetry,” Jerlan chuckles. Nonetheless, Jerlan’s poetic voice was undeniable, and her best friend convinced her to join a group, Black Angels, where she began to hone her budding skills. Yet it was Jerlan’s participation in a Woodlawn Campus creative writing course, run with the help of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), that sparked an internal transformation that impacted not only Jerlan, but also her school and community.
Last year, the CSO began a partnership with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. Yo Yo Ma’s position as Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant for the CSO and his affinity for the work of the University of Chicago Charter School made it an ideal space to cultivate this collaboration. The collaboration included hiring an instructor from Young Chicago Authors (YCA) to teach creative writing to Woodlawn Campus students.
It was an assignment given by her YCA instructor that compelled Jerlan to compose “Mistful Friendship,” a heartfelt and elegant reflection on her relationship with the very friend who helped Jerlan understand that she was a poet. A recording of Jerlan’s performance of the piece caught the eye of her instructors and Mr. Ma. Her passionate and polished presentation made her an ideal candidate to represent the CSO-UChicago Charter School relationship when Mr. Ma met with President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Jerlan’s performance of “Mistful Friendship,” partnered with Ma’s inimitable cello—an experience Jerlan describes as “mind-blowing”—impressed that audience so much that soon Jerlan was performing her piece for other Chicago Public School students and members of the school board, as well as being interviewed on NBC.
Despite the increased notoriety, the most significant impact of Jerlan’s performance can be seen on the Woodlawn Campus—and in Jerlan. Before her involvement in the creative writing course, Jerlan had been failing three of her classes. Jerlan credits performing with Yo-Yo Ma as part of the reason for her academic turnaround. She realized the unique opportunity the experience had afforded her. She began to understand that she could not dedicate herself to her craft and not be equally committed to her academics. With the assistance of her mentor/instructor, Ahava Silkey, Jerlan began working just as hard on course work, and is now passing all of her classes.
“Ms. Silkey really helped push me in the way that I needed to go,” Jerlan says. Jerlan’s mother has been equally supportive, staying up late to help study for finals and finish school projects, and ensuring that Jerlan continues writing her poetry and practicing her pieces.
Before her performance, fellow classmates had no idea Jerlan had such a voice. Since then, Jerlan has gained the admiration and respect of her fellow Woodlawn Warriors. “Jerlan has become a huge spokesperson for the program,” Ms. Silkey says proudly. Increased student participation in the CSO course has allowed for the production of the school’s first musical, Fame, which NBC is co-sponsoring. More importantly, Jerlan has inspired other students to find their own voice through writing. “Students realize that we mean it when we say, ‘This could take you anywhere’,” Ms. Silkey notes. “Students are much more focused. [Jerlan helps them] understand what the outcome of the intention is.”
Jerlan has already started finding other ways to influence her community, including collaborating with her neighbor on a television show that will give other young voices the opportunity to tell their stories. She’s even considering going into broadcasting as a career. “I want to do something that will impact the world, that will impact others,” she says convincingly, her voice full with focus. Indeed, she already has. And now that Jerlan has found her voice, she will not only inspire others to listen, but help them find their voice.