“She invited me to the front of the class and [I] sang ‘Three Blind Mice,’” Juan Felipe Herrera said. “It’s really funny, but to my surprise, now I go, ‘How did I do that?’”
That was the moment the current United States Poet Laureate and former Fresno State professor, found his voice. Herrera found the encouragement from Lelya Sampson, his third grade teacher, in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego.
“I hadn’t spoken and I was afraid to speak,” Herrera said. “I never, ever imagined being called on to come to the front of class and to be asked to sing – when my experience had been the opposite of that during first and second grade. That was beyond the last thing [I expected] because we weren’t allowed to speak in Spanish. That was all I knew and if I did, I would be punished.”
After the future U.S. Poet Laureate finished singing the song, he heard five inspiring words from Sampson.
“She said, ‘You have a beautiful voice,’” Herrera said.
“Once I got going in my poetry life, I said, ‘That’s what I wanted to tell everybody,’ because that made a big difference in my life,” Herrera added.
Those five simple words Herrera heard from his third–grade teacher, was what he wanted to tell educators gathered for the opening reception of The California Latino Leadership Education Summit on campus, Thursday evening.
“It’s just a few seconds, but when your teacher takes her time with a student – especially such a young student – such a sensitive student, and tells him ‘You have a beautiful voice,’ and it just shakes a lot of stuff off,” Herrera said.
“You feel good. All that difficulty goes away,” Herrera said. “We can build on it. It’s like a melody. Sooner or later, we’re going to sing, you wanna sing it out loud. Because we never think we have a voice.”
The young student didn’t believe Sampson after he heard those words.
“Of course, I didn’t believe her,” Herrera said. “And of course I refused to believe her, but I had to deal with it because she had said it.”
The U.S. Poet Laureate still keeps in touch with Sampson, who’s now 93. Herrera said that she sees him as his third mother.
Herrera also read the poem “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way,” from his first poetry book, “Rebozos of love, we have woven, sudor de pueblos on our back.”
“The whole book kind of follows that style,” Herrera said. “It was the first poem I was inspired to put into that book.”
The U.S. Poet Laureate came to campus to also encourage Fresno State students to enter in the La Familia poetry project that’s a part of his greater La Casa de Colores project.
The theme for La Familia changes every month and the current theme is “Migrants: Portraits and Friendships” and the deadline for submissions is Nov. 14.
The project is open to anyone more than 13 years of age and only one poetry submission per author will be accepted during each 30-day themed period and poems should not exceed 200 characters.
Selected works will be included in an epic poem in April 2016.
Herrera is also constructing “El Jardín/The Garden,” a feature of the project that will include resources from the Library of Congress through webcasts, a poem response from Herrera and the curator’s comments.