On the first day of class I ask my students to write poems about what Tupac means to them. They had been four and five years old when he died and held no memories of him as human being they shared air with. Yet when I had asked them a month before what they wanted to study in summer school—voluntary summer school—they all said Tupac. I can’t say I was surprised. Over the year I had worked with these kids I’d come to know their musical tastes well: Pitbull and Eminem, they liked; Tupac, they revered. His legacy had survived his death. (And do you remember how for years we hoped he had too?) But why? Why Tupac? When I was these kids’ age—thirteen, fourteen—I had listened to Me Against the World like my life depended on it, and a decade later my cells still vibrated to its rhythms. All our lives we remain audience to the music we listened to when we were young, hearing like feeling tuned to what touched us first and loudest. All our lives. For my students I want to feel my way back to being sixteen, seventeen years old, driving aimlessly around Portland with my friends singing When I was young me and my mama had beef / Seventeen years old, kicked out on the streets. For these kids I want to recall what it was like to have somewhere to go but not know where that was except in a hungry baritone that told me the things a certain kind of teenager needs to hear: be yourself—all of it; don’t apologize; you can do it; there’s something special in you—and it’s up to you to express it; everyone, when you get to know them, is as complex as you are; others have gone through what you’re going through, and some of them are reaching back to offer you a hand, if you can only figure out how to accept it; you will encounter obstacles, many of them your own making, but there’s a better you waiting on the other side; you are alive only until you’re dead—how could there possibly be anything to lose? All our lives: What could there be to lose?
Listen up, students. I’m seventeen, stopped at a red light. Tupac has been dead two years. I’m alone in the car. I’m screaming fuck the world, and I’m full of hope as I conjure the person I thought I could be. All our lives. Alone, not alone. Tupac there with me, an apparition whispering from beyond the grave, no, shouting, imploring me to go. All our lives. The light turns green. When I collect the students’ poems they’re full of misspellings and questionable interpretations. They’re also full of truth and full of heart. There are no tests in this class, no grades. If they wanted to, they could be at home playing video games or hanging out in the parking lot. Instead, they are here. All of them turn in their homework. No one misses class. If Tupac lived? What do we mean if?