“We live in a world that’s full of hate.”
So begins the poem of Katherine Marisol Murillo, a 15-year-old girl who recalls the circumstances that led her to Nuestra Pequeñas Rosas, a haven in the middle of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It’s a city known for its maquiladoras (apparel plants) and murder rate (No. 1 in the world), where abandoned children live in cardboard boxes on street corners and find their nourishment from the charity of others or the city dump.
“My mother is dead and I never knew my father. At the age of 6, I came here. I felt I was in paradise …”
Katherine, whose poem is titled I Was Six Years Old, is one of 30 students from the school at Nuestra Pequeñas Rosas — Our Little Roses in English — who are being taught how to express themselves, often scraping shattered souls, through poetry.
Their teachers: Spencer Reece, an award-winning poet turned Episcopal priest, and Richard Blanco, the Columbus High and Florida International University grad who delivered his poem, One Day, at President Obama’s inauguration in January. The two are collecting and editing the poems, written in English and Spanish, from the children. The plan is have them published in a book of poetry, illustrated with watercolors from the children, to be called, The Season of Singing Has Come (Song of Solomon, 2:12).
They’ve also teamed with a film crew producing a documentary on the project. James Franco, the Oscar-nominated actor from 127 Hours , is the executive producer and singer-songwriter Dar Williams is composing the soundtrack. They hope to premiere the film next year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Reece, Blanco and director Brad Coley will appear Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables to read the poems, preview the film and raise funds for the documentary.
Reece, a Brooks Brothers salesman in an earlier incarnation, is the visionary — albeit an accidental one.
He first went to Our Little Roses in the summer of 2010 to learn Spanish. Reece was in the process of becoming a priest and would be working under The Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida and the former bishop of Honduras.
Frade’s wife Diana had founded Our Little Roses in 1988, after teaching in Honduras and witnessing scores of homeless girls scrounging the streets. She started with a rented three-bedroom, two-bath home and 26 girls.
Over 25 years, Our Little Roses has evolved into a walled sanctuary in San Pedro Sula, showering hundreds of girls with love, respect and perhaps most importantly, an educational ticket to transform their lives. (Full disclosure: I have gone to Our Little Roses a week every summer with St. Philip’s and my family for the past seven years.)
Shortly after starting the home, Diana opened a school, beginning with one classroom. (The city of San Pedro Sula donated a five-acre plot to build the complex in the early ’90s.) Today, Holy Family Bilingual School has more than 250 girls and boys, including children from the surrounding city. The two-story school spans preschool to high school, complete with kindergarten graduations, middle school algebra and, this June, its first high school graduating class.
Diana’s vision has been to change Honduran society one girl at a time. Twenty-five years later, she’s doing it. The first generation of girls have graduated from Honduran universities as teachers, engineers and business executives. One of the girls, Jensy, who arrived at Our Little Roses as a 9-year-old after her mother contracted AIDS, went to university in San Pedro Sula, graduated and enrolled in dental school at the university. Today, she is a dentist and operates Our Little Roses’ first dental clinic, serving the girls and the community.
“None of these girls will go back to where they came from,’’ says Diana. “The only direction they can move is forward.’’
All this in a country that is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, behind Nicaragua, where thousands live in bordos, shantytowns where children gather water from brown, brackish rivers and pick food scraps from trash piles.
“Honduras?” Reece said, upon hearing of Frade’s recommendation to learn Spanish at Our Little Roses. “I grew up in Minnesota. I think, ‘Honduras? Where’s that?’ ”
Reece, 49, was on his own journey. A graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut , Reece spent 12 years working for Brooks Brothers, first as a salesman in its Mall of America store near Minneapolis, then transferring to the Gardens Mall store in Palm Beach Gardens as assistant manager.
By day, Reece, with his horn-rimmed glasses, receding hairline and pin-striped suits, waxed eloquently about windowpane sports coats, suede bucks and navy blazers with names like two-button classics.
Poetry by night
By night, he wrote poetry. He submitted poems to The New Yorker, poetry journals and myriad literary competitions. For 23 years he wrote, his only recognition coming from an estimated 1,000 rejection letters.
One night 10 years ago he picked up a message on his answering machine at his Lantana apartment. It was from Louise Glück, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet. She called to say that a collection of Reece’s poems, called The Clerk’s Tale, had won the Bakeless Prize for new authors awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“When I got the message in January, I had just folded down the cashmere sweater table at Brooks, closed down the store after the Christmas rush, got into my beat-up Dodge Neon without AC,” he wrote in an email from Honduras. “I must have gotten home by 11. I played the message again and again. I could not believe it. I thought I was the runner-up. I could not put into my head I had won.’’
Shortly thereafter, he received another phone call, this from the poetry editor of The New Yorker at the time, Alice Quinn. The magazine wanted to publish the collection’s namesake poem, The Clerk’s Tale,on its back page on Father’s Day 2003. It begins:
“I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, selling suits to men I call “Sir.”
These men are muscled, groomed and cropped —
with wives and families that grow exponentially.
Mostly I talk of rep ties and bow ties,
of full-Windsor knots and half-Windsor knots,
of tattersall, French cuff, and English spread collars,
of foulards, neats, and internationals,
of pincord, houndstooth, nailhead, and sharkskin.”
The poetry prize and New Yorker poem planted a seed in Reece. When he was in his early 20s, Reece earned a master’s degree in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. He thought about the priesthood but wasn’t ready.
He still wasn’t sure and continued to work at Brooks Brothers. He began, however, to volunteer at hospice.
“I realized one day at hospice that I had once wanted to be a priest but I’d forgotten about it. … I wondered if it was still possible, if it wasn’t too late. Sometimes in middle age we realize we lose sight of some original intention and wonder if we can reclaim it.”
In August 2009, Spencer worked his last day, a Friday, at Brooks Brothers in Palm Beach Gardens. On Monday, he began studying at Berkeley Seminary at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Ct.
While training to be a priest, Reece took a post as chaplain at Hartford Hospital. One night a mother and son from Puerto Rico were rushed into the emergency room. The boy had been stabbed 25 times in the chest in a gang-related fight. He died the next morning. Reece tried to console the distraught mother, but she spoke only Spanish. He spoke only English.
He called up Frade. “This is not going to work,” he told him, “for me, a nearly 50-year-old gringo, to return to your diocese and not speak Spanish.”
Frade responded: “I have just the place for you.”
In the summer of 2010, Reece spent two months at Our Little Roses. He picked up some Spanish, talked with the girls, but said he felt “pretty useless.”
The night before he was to return to Miami, he had walked around the complex several times and was going upstairs to his dorm room to pack his bags. He noticed one of the girls waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. Her name was Wendolyn.
“I heard that you are leaving tomorrow,” she said.
“Yes,” Reece answered. “Do you want to tell me something?”
She looked up at the stars, then looked at him and whispered: “Don’t forget us.”
“It chilled me to the bone,” Reece said. “I think it resonated really deeply because I had a cousin who was murdered at a very young age.”
On the flight home and for days and weeks thereafter, he mulled over how he could honor her wish.
“I’m not a social justice person, I’m not even that smart … but what I did know was something about writing,” he said.
He applied for a Fulbright fellowship, proposing he would write a book of poems about Honduras, including translating Honduran poets. He was a finalist but didn’t make the cut. He then won a grant to study Spanish in an immersion program in Spain.
After becoming more adept at Spanish, Reece reapplied for a Fulbright. This time, he proposed he would teach the Honduran schoolchildren how to write their poems. He enlisted Blanco, whom he had met years earlier at a poetry reading at Books & Books.
“Spencer’s enthusiasm in the project has been contagious,” said Blanco, who encouraged Reece to reapply for the Fulbright. “I told him that everything I’ve ever gotten in my life is the second time around.”
Reece won the Fulbright and is spending a year at Our Little Roses, teaching eighth- to 11th-graders to write poetry. Blanco will join him there later this year.
Reece also reached out to Franco, who had made a movie from Reece’s poem.
“I worked with Spencer previously adapting his poem The Clerk’s Tale into a beautiful movie,” Franco said. “We became friends during that process. After he was ordained, he went to Honduras and he discussed this project with me. It seemed like another great combination of poetry and film for a great cause, so I was happy to be involved with it.”
Teaching poetry to teenagers hasn’t been easy, especially given where the girls have come from. Their back stories sting. Stories such as the 4-year-old girl and her 11-year-old sister left on the sidewalk by their mother, who told them to wait for her return. She never came back. Or the toddler who was beaten and locked in a barrel. Or the children whose mothers died of AIDS and who have never known their fathers.
“This is not an ordinary student population,” Reece said. “These girls have been through abuse and abandonment issues beyond what you can ever imagine. But they are writing poetry.”
And pouring their souls into it.
Said Katherine, “I just opened my heart and all that stuff came out.”