Starting the Fire

A few years ago, when Pierson Bracy was entering sixth grade at Northwestern Middle School, he was like many students at that age — facing a new school, a new locker, a new principal, new classmates and a daunting new schedule of classes.

It’s scary stuff for kids and a critical transition time for students. Many fall behind, and middle school retention is a key risk factor for those who may later drop out of school.

Fortunately, Bracy’s mother got him involved in the United Way of Northeast Florida’s Achievers for Life program. AFL focuses on dropout prevention, targeting sixth-grade students at risk for academic failure. AFL surrounds students with services such as mentoring, counseling, family support and parent training to increase families’ engagement at school. The program tackles challenges that might derail students from graduating.

The program is meaningful to Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman Eben Britton, the team’s United Way representative. He said the key is letting young people know that adults actually care about what they do — they’re “not just people who bark at them and tell them what to do.”

“We work with them in elementary and middle school, so when they get to high school, they’re much more inspired.”

Although he wasn’t an at-risk student, he said he wasn’t a high-achiever growing up in Burbank, Calif.

“I always felt like I was a terrible student,” Britton said. “I wasn’t an avid reader. I didn’t get into reading until high school.”

When he was 16 or 17, he read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “Less Than Zero,” and a light switched on. Britton learned that Ellis had written the first drafts of the novel as a high school student and published it while he was still in college.

“It really struck me how honest he was.”

Britton read Ellis’ other novels, then moved on to other authors who inspired him, like Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller.

“I realized that I didn’t have to read ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ They’re incredible novels, and people should read them, but they don’t touch everyone the same way; not everyone appreciates them in the same way.”

He was also a strong athlete and started playing football as a high school freshman. When college football scholarship offers arrived, he narrowed schools down by which ones had strong creative writing programs.

“I had fallen in love with writing,” Britton said. “It was a great way to express myself and my heartbroken teenage misery that I was going through in high school.”

During a visit to the University of Arizona in Tucson, he learned that its creative writing program was in the country’s top 10.

“I committed the next day.”

In his work with the United Way, Britton wanted to help inspire students like he’d been inspired. He thought a poetry contest would be a great way to get kids thinking creatively. AFL students from Northwestern, Highlands, Eugene Butler and Matthew Gilbert middle schools entered their work on the theme “What Makes Me Happy.” United Way volunteers identified the top 10 poems, and Britton selected the final winners.

Bracy, now an eighth grader, wrote this:

What makes me happy?

To see my mom wake up every day.

To know my brother is in a better place.

To have another step in life.

To wake and see the sunlight.

“I thought poetry was a good way for me to express my feelings,” Bracy said. “My big brother had passed, and I didn’t want my mom to pass. I wanted her to see me grow up, and I wanted her to see how I would turn out in life.”

Since the death of his older brother in 2010, Bracy has been the big brother to his younger sister and brother. It’s a lot of responsibility. He said AFL helped him focus on academics, improve his speaking and gain self-confidence. He had done some narrative and expository writing in school, but not much poetry before he entered the contest. His mom was impressed.

“She said she didn’t know I could write like that.”

The submissions also impressed Britton.

“All the poems that the kids entered were — maybe not surprisingly — incredibly profound,” Britton said. “What they wrote was heartbreaking in some cases.”

Britton doesn’t get to write as much as he’d like to, especially during football season.

“Football is so draining, when I get home I’m a vegetable.”

But he does have a creative outlet. “The Number 73” airs 11 p.m. Wednesdays on WJCT 89.9-FM. Britton blends an eclectic music playlist with readings from poetry, novels, short stories and even random newspaper clippings.

“Occasionally, I read my own writing. I try not to let anybody know that it’s mine. If I don’t cite a name, it’s probably mine.”

Now Bracy and his family will get to hear Britton read the eighth-grader’s first-place poem on the Feb. 13 show. Britton will read the other winning poems on shows throughout February. You can read them all here.

Bracy was looking forward to having lunch with writer-athlete Britton at Northwestern on Feb. 1. He had a lot of questions ready to ask.

“I want to hear how he got into writing. I want him to read some of his poems to me.”