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The imposing edifice of St. Ignatius College Prep, one of Chicago's most prestigious high schools.

Feeling alone at home and at school, poetry brings kinship

by Robyn Murray and Di Dinnis
Mar 5, 2013

Di Dinnis/MEDILL

Watch Diana Sarfo perform her poem "Don't Judge Me." 


Di Dinnis/MEDILL

Sarfo talks about prejudice and misconceptions that run both ways.

Robyn Murray/MEDILL

Hear Diana Sarfo perform a poem about her father and talk about the inspiration behind it. Sarfo's father lived in Ghana and died in 2009, when Sarfo was a freshman.


Inside the halls of Saint Ignatius College Prep, dark wood paneling frames the hushed corridors. Soft lighting lines long hallways where alums are immortalized in browned photographs that date back to 1870. Statues of Catholic saints look on piously.

Ignatius’ imposing stone building sits on Roosevelt Road, just a few miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop. It’s one of the city’s most prestigious high schools. Home to about 1,400 students, Ignatius accepts only the brightest from around the city and prides itself on its diverse student body.

But despite that diversity, students like Diana Sarfo can still feel isolated.

Sarfo lives in Uptown, a neighborhood on the North Side that has struggled with pockets of gang violence.

“I’m blessed not to experience it firsthand,” Sarfo said, but “not a lot of people here are from Uptown or from the South Side and know exactly how it feels.”

Sarfo said that distance in understanding is underwritten by prejudice. Occasionally classmates will make offensive remarks, she said, such as, “‘Oh, you should know how to run because you’re black’ or people making remarks like whether you should attend this school because you’re on welfare.”

That prejudice and misunderstanding run both ways.

Sarfo said people in her neighborhood assume she’s, in her words, prestigious and high maintenance because she attends Ignatius.

“I don’t want to be seen as one of the crowd,” she said. “I want to be seen as one person.”

Sarfo’s in her senior year and is applying to Ivy League University of Pennsylvania next year. Despite a busy schedule, she said she took a risk to join the slam poetry team this year and compete in the citywide Louder Than a Bomb competition.

One of the pieces she’s performing is titled “Don’t Judge Me.” (Watch the video to see Sarfo perform the piece.)

“When you go to slams and hear stories, it tells you you’re not alone,” she said. “Everyone is able to relate to each other in one way or the other.”

Sarfo also writes about the loss of her father in a piece in which she describes never being able to tell him that she loves him. (Listen to the audio to hear Sarfo perform and explain the inspiration behind the poem.) Sarfo’s father lived in Ghana for most of her life, and died from unexplained causes in 2009.

Poetry coach and creative writing teacher at Ignatius, Craig Siegler, said he encouraged the school to participate in LTAB this year despite the innumerable extracurricular activities already available to students. “It gets kids from different parts of the city and suburbs together who normally never would have been in the same room,” he said. “You see a look of recognition constantly on the faces of the students in the audience because what the kids on stage are talking about, the kids in the stands have experienced too.”

Siegler said students at Ignatius work incredibly hard and he’s proud they’ve come together to make time for poetry.

“We need to hear those voices,” Siegler said. “They are the future.”

And that, he said, “is a future I’m looking forward to.”