By Yolanda Wisher Palacio

I hear a lot in the news about crazy kids in Philly. Assaulting teachers over iPods. Throwing rocks at cars. Making it hard for the village to want to raise the child. But one thing I know is that we can't give up on these kids. What's more, we've got to get hip to their program - that is, really understand what's going on inside their minds and hearts.

I got a glimpse last month. It was at the Painted Bride Art Center's monthly Rock the Pen! series, hosted by poet Trapeta Mayson. Teenagers from Philadelphia's public schools performed original poems on the open mike.

I've been to a lot of poetry readings in Philly - paid money to hear poetry in Philly - but this was a reading I will remember. Why? Nearly every student who stepped up to the mike had the power to kill. With words.

The raw, brazen, sassy poems I heard on topics such as pregnancy, absent fathers, politics, love, graduation and sexuality would have set most classrooms, barbershops and dinner tables afire - with surprise, perhaps shame, more likely laughter.

At one point, a Bartram High School teacher leaned over to me and said, "We have to find some way to bottle this up."

This was the energy, the bravado, the longing, the humor that these young Philadelphians had translated into poetry, into signing their names on the open-mike list and rising out of their seats to the surprise of their peers. In approaching the mike and momentarily conquering all obstacles of public speaking, they revealed the most beautiful part of themselves - the hidden, the wounded, the silenced. Perhaps even more cherished for me was the reverent way their peers listened, never daring to break Mayson's rule to "respect the artist." They simply relished their classmates' stories, their own.

You gotta love the way they cackled and howled for their favorite poets when the last word reached the shore of the poem's end. I had to wonder: What poetry reading gets this rich at 11 in the morning?

It's Philly's "genie in a bottle," this largely untapped creative passion and potential of the city's youths. Why don't we invest in this creative spirit, this Philly essence in the music and murals, when it first begins to gleam?

I believe that poetry and rap are languages that invite the inner and collective conversation. Some folks might be surprised at how many young people are intrigued about and immersed in the creative process. They need more avenues like Rock the Pen!, Poetry Outloud, the Philly Youth Poetry Slam, and last Saturday's Germantown Poetry Festival to grow artistically.

They all have something to say. Will you be listening?