Spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan's bare, broken, and beautiful performances - during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, a 2013 TED talk that's notched millions of online views - have won him international acclaim. The Canadian artist is in the middle of a tour that will take him to New York, Chicago, London, Dublin - and the Valley Day School in Morrisville, Bucks County.
Never mind his fame and ability to command five-figure speaking fees. Koyczan said the visit Wednesday to the small school in an out-of-the-way borough will allow him to share with 100 students who have emotional and behavioral problems his story of surviving and thriving after a childhood shaped by bullying. That chance to give them hope is what drives him.
"A lot of time, youth feel isolated. They're not treated like complete human beings. Their thoughts, their feelings, their opinions are often dismissed because of their age," said Koyczan, who, after today's hour-long performance and discussion with students, will perform a sold-out show at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live on Friday. "It's important for me to go in there and make them feel included. . . . I know what I went through growing up and all I'm trying to do is kick open that door a little bit and show them, 'You're not alone. A lot of us went through the same thing.' "
Valley Day education director Ron Hall - who used Koyczan's Olympic poem "We Are More" as part of a schoolwide lesson in seeing beyond the superficial - said he's seen the impact such dynamic guest speakers can have on his students. As Koyczan noted, many of them feel overlooked, but not only because of their age. More than 90 percent of Valley Day students have suffered trauma, including physical or emotional abuse, or the loss of a parent. Many also live in poverty.
"If we can expose them to something that's not just quality but really high quality, we're showing them, 'You're worth it. You're worth working hard and going that extra mile for,' " Hall said. "It shows we care."
Koyczan cares, as his TED talk shows. He still receives daily messages from people who are suffering, including some who are suicidal. He offers hotline numbers but notes "a lot of times, it goes a long way just to acknowledge their pain."
"I spent a lot of time in school being told that nothing I think or say has value or meaning. If you hear it often enough, you start to believe it," he said.
Valley Day uses the "sanctuary model" of educating, which in part teaches students ways to protect themselves so they can lead healthy lives. Writing can be one of those strategies. After another well-known spoken-word artist, Joaquin Zihuatanejo, visited the school last academic year, student Roman Barnes was inspired for the first time to share his poetry with his schoolmates.
"I wanted to impress him, this huge poet who got all these awards and trailed around the world," recalled Barnes, now 17 and a junior. "I read it in front of everybody - I didn't think about it. I was doing it for him - and kids were coming up to me like, 'Wow.' They were kind of impressed."
Growing up, Koyczan kept journals that detailed his struggles. Quotes from those writings now appear in his poetry. In his TED talk, he recalls how kids called him Yogi, but when one of the bullies tried to cheat off Koyczan, who gave him the wrong test answers, he proved he was "smarter than the average bear."
One of the talk's most moving sequences:
. . . if you can't see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror, look a little closer, stare a little longer, because there's something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit. You built a cast around your broken heart and you signed it yourself, you signed it, 'they were wrong.'
Barnes, too, began writing poetry to deal with trauma. He was 11 when his sister, 13, was raped.
Barnes began writing poetry in elementary school after the rape. As his mother struggled to help her daughter while coping with her own emotions, Barnes decided he had to be the family's strength.
"I said, 'I've got to be strong for these guys. I've got to put a smile on my face every day, even if it's not how I'm feeling. I've got to say the words of encouragement like, 'Things are going to pass.' I was sacrificing my own emotions so everyone else could be all right," he said. "I was losing myself because I didn't have a way to release my emotions."
Then Barnes began writing free verse and, to his own surprise, he felt better afterward. He still writes as a release - "If I didn't, I would explode. Pressure breaks the pipe," he said - and he is looking forward to sharing his work with Koyczan.