This interview is republished from The Chicago Dispatch, an online magazine of interviews, essays, and creative work about Chicago, edited by Daniel Kay Hertz.
Jessica Pope graduated from Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School in 2016, and led Lindblom’s slam poetry team in the Louder Than a Bomb tournament. She grew up in West Englewood, and will be attending Fisk University this fall. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school in West Englewood, at 61st Street and Wolcott Avenue. It consistently ranks as one of the highest-achieving high schools in the city.
I went to Charles W. Earle Elementary School, and [there] was a student that came from Lindblom. High school students came up to the elementary school, and they helped us with math and English and Mandarin. And in fifth grade, this one girl named Jennifer, she really inspired me to want to go to Lindblom.
At the time, I honestly felt being smart was a bad thing, because all the kids would have made fun of me. But she told me not to worry about that, that if I had goals to push for them, and to believe in myself. Ever since fifth grade, I made straight A’s, had perfect attendance, and I told myself I was going to get into Lindblom. And I ended up getting in.
I had a best friend, she wanted to go to Lindblom, but she didn’t pass the test. I had a lot of people who wanted to go to Lindblom or selective enrollment schools and they couldn’t pass the test. She was very smart, but she just couldn’t pass, and she ended up going to Simeon Academy, and she found very little there. Even my brother—he’s very smart, and he’s currently making straight A’s, but he couldn’t attend Lindblom because he couldn’t pass the reading portion of the test. He told me he was nervous. I feel like it’s not fair.
[If I hadn’t gotten into Lindblom,] I feel like, knowing me, I would have went to Harper or Dunbar and made the best decisions I could have made. I would have had the same mindset I had in elementary school, which was trying to get out of high school and trying to push myself.
But the difference between Lindblom and Harper is that at Lindblom I was able to be exposed to so many things. Watching my friends do study abroad programs, engineering, computer science—I’m part of the poetry team. I’m part of a family at Lindblom. I probably would have made one at Harper. I don’t know.
Some of my best friends live in different neighborhoods across the city. I feel like it made me a better person. I didn’t have that at all [before Lindblom]. It helps me learn more about other people’s cultures. I feel like it made me a better person. I don’t think I would have experienced that at Harper.
I have a friend who lives in Beverly. It made me look at things differently. It made me question, Why do I live in a neighborhood like this? Why doesn’t our neighborhood receive special attention like Beverly does? Why is it quiet in Beverly but loud in Englewood? It made me question everything.
I would say it was an eye-opening experience to realize that you don’t come from the same location everybody else does. You have to run while other people have to walk. It’s hard, but at the end of the day, my appreciation runs deep for any person that I meet. All of their background stories. It made me a better person, honestly.
I started doing poetry when I was in third grade, but I didn’t get into slam poetry, or want to share my poetry with people, until I was in the sixth or seventh grade. When I got to high school, someone told me that a woman named Molly Myers was in charge of the poetry team, and I was like hunting her down. And when I found her, she told me what day it was supposed to start, and I asked her every day—I wanted to be sure. And when we started, there were like seven people in the poetry club. Now, on a regular day it gets up to thirty or forty people.
My freshman year, we thought we had this idea of poetry and what it looked like, but we didn’t understand until we started to learn to write about ourselves. Jamila Woods was our freshman year poetry coach, and she honestly helped me be the person that I am today. Like, she is my salvation. I was writing others’ stories, I wasn’t writing my own, I didn’t know how to do that. And she helped me dig deep inside to write about myself. And that was when it started to click.
Writing about yourself is so important—being vulnerable with people around you is so important. Every day I practice vulnerability with my friends and everybody I come into contact with, because I feel that’s something the world is missing, the opportunity to be vulnerable with each other. That’s honestly how I feel I got through high school. We helped each other get through high school.
When you’re able to be in a space—it’s like being yourself. You don’t have to walk around with a blind over your body. You walk around free, everybody knows everything about you, and it’s beautiful.
Sometimes we have problems that none of us can give advice to, but what we can do is give our love and support to help them get through it. To let them know you’re not alone, if you need somewhere to go, you can come over here, because I don’t think you can walk this earth alone. You need people in your corner to help you get through it.
I looked up to people in the poetry club. When people started to leave because they graduated, it was hard to make that transition. I was like, Who am I supposed to look up to? But then I realized I’m the one the kids are supposed to look up to now. That’s when I became captain of the club. I’m trying to make people feel comfortable in the poetry club, and show their voices and speak up, just like I learned to speak up about things going on in my life. I appreciate Lindblom for letting us say things we want to say.
Have you seen Narnia? I’d describe [Lindblom] the same way. In Narnia, they have the door that people walk past all the time and don’t want to go into. But once you step inside, you see another world, all of these new people, and you make a family.
You need to go to Lindblom and experience it for yourself. I’ve never been in a location where teachers are so thirsty to help you. They’ll stay after school for you, before school, call their husband or their wife and tell them, “I’ll be late because I have to help my students.” Don’t get me wrong, Lindblom is extremely hard. It blew me back my freshman year, because at Earle, I was valedictorian. When I came to Lindblom, it was like, okay, everybody here is valedictorian.
People don’t want to go through the door because many people believe that since this school is in Englewood that they—they fear for their lives. At schools like Whitney Young and Northside Prep and Jones and so on, because they’re in neighborhoods that are deemed “safe,” it’s very attractive to be in schools like that. But I feel like those schools are missing the family aspect that Lindblom has. The people make up the building.
Sometimes I don’t have the energy to educate people that Lindblom is an amazing school, amazing people come from this school, and go on to do great things. Sometimes it gets very tiring when somebody looks down on your school because you live on the South Side.
Honestly, we have police officers driving around the school, police officers in the school, security guards everywhere. It’s rarely any violence that happens outside the school. I have [friends] that walk down to this fast food place down the street all the time, nothing happens. But people look at the news all day, they don’t come and experience it for themselves.
We had a teachers’ visit that was held at Lindblom during the summer of last year, and I was helping out a friend who was in charge of getting stuff together. And this one woman, she was walking up to the school, and she had this nasty look on her face of disgust. Of, “Oh my God, why is this being held here?” In my mind, that’s what she looked like. And it took her a while to walk into the building. She was looking around every two seconds. And I was like, oh my goodness, this is really happening.
But then I have to realize, maybe she is afraid because of all the things she heard. And it makes me sad that we live in a world where people are afraid to walk around. But can I blame her? No, because this is all she sees.
I feel like over time it’s gotten better. People are starting to look at Lindblom like it’s on the same level as Whitney Young or Northside. I give that up to the students for getting our name out there—like, hey, we’re not shooting people, we’re trying to get our education, and we care about our teachers a lot, and we want our school to stay open.
I feel like it needs to be a focus on neighborhood schools more. They have potential too, and people don’t pay a lot of attention to them. The media portrays selective enrollment schools as the only kids that make it. It’s not true.
Why would you want to go to a school that everyone around you thinks is horrible? That doesn’t feel right on the brain at all. It makes you feel like, Why am I trying, if people feel like I’m not going to be nothing if I go to this school?
This is part of why I feel that dropout rates are high. No one gives them attention, no one gives them love like they give us at selective enrollment schools. All of these selective enrollment schools have these wonderful teachers, but teachers want a name, too. There are some good teachers at Dunbar, Harper, and so on. But many of them don’t want to work at a school like Harper, because of what people tell them. It’s about having pride.
I’m part of a program called Target H.O.P.E., and it introduced me to many schools. Fisk University ended up being the school I fell in love with.
Fisk is like a bigger Lindblom. It has poetry everywhere. What I like is Fisk allows me to still be a poet, but also allows me to become an ob-gyn. It has a medical school right next door, and I hope to stay around there to go to medical school. Fisk allows me to be myself, to be vulnerable. It’s just another family. It’s just like Lindblom, but with more opportunities and more doors.
When I finish, I plan to come back. I feel it’s very important to put love and support back into your community. I want to work with pregnant teenagers and homeless youth and adult women.
I experienced having friends who ended up being pregnant, or homeless. I feel like many people forget about them. There are still some organizations that give them attention, but I want to join the fight and let them know they’re not forgotten. I can be anything I want to be—I could be a computer scientist, live my life as a poet. But my passion, my purpose for life, is helping them. And I can’t wait to come back to Chicago and start that journey.