When Alexandra Gazzaniga Padilla gives her 10th-grade students time to write, she will circulate around the room, coaxing words out of students who need help.
There was always one student she left to work through her words on her own, she says.
With headphones on, Amanda Gorman would be “pulsating” as she put pen to paper, the English teacher said. She would write — and slip into another world.
“It was the most beautiful energy to have in the room,” Padilla said.
On Wednesday, Gorman became the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration. Named the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, she roused the country with “The Hill We Climb,” a poem about the fragile state of democracy and the role each individual can play in preserving it. Gorman became a viral sensation as millions of Americans watched her recitation, amassing nearly 900,000 Twitter followers over the course of the day.
Teachers and mentors who have worked with Gorman weren’t surprised to hear she’d been chosen to perform at the inauguration. From a young age, she had a reputation as a powerful writer and activist, working to help those in need, said Padilla, who taught Gorman at the New Roads School in Santa Monica, Calif., and has continued to mentor Gorman since she graduated from high school in 2016. Gorman has often said that she plans to run for president in 2036, the first year she’ll be eligible. She also alluded to her presidential ambitions in her inaugural poem.
“I don’t know exactly what path she’ll take” to the presidency, said Padilla. “But I have no doubt she’ll find a way.”
Padilla heard about Gorman long before she was her student. Other teachers raved about her writing. When she saw her name on her 10th-grade class roster in 2013, Padilla said, she smiled.
“I was like, ‘Oh boy. I get Amanda in my English class.’ ”
Even as a 15-year-old, Gorman always had an “innate sense of her own power,” said Michelle Chahine, a writer who mentored Gorman through WriteGirl, a Los Angeles-based creative writing nonprofit for girls. She was committed to making change through a career as a writer or politician — or, maybe, both.
“It’s not that she’s interested in politics for the sake of politics,” Padilla said. “She just sees it as another way to enact change.”
Gorman started her high school chapter of Girls Learn International, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the rights of women and girls around the world. She would lead assemblies to educate her classmates on human rights abuses, said Padilla. Gorman was so moved by “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, a book about a Sudanese child refugee, that she started crying on the school bus, Padilla remembers. Reading about the refugees on their long walk toward freedom, Padilla said, Gorman told her she found herself unconsciously extending her arms, “trying to help them find their way.”
“That’s how powerfully she feels words.”
Gorman was an extraordinarily confident writer for her age, Chahine said. Reading her words, she said, you could tell she believed in them: She knew exactly what she wanted to say, and delivered, crafting even academic papers into poetry.
“She is the kind of writer who will wrestle with a sentence to get it just where she wants it,” Padilla said.
It was always clear to Padilla that Gorman could achieve anything she set her mind to. She remembers sitting with Gorman after school in her classroom when she got into Harvard. Gorman leaped into Padilla’s arms after she opened the email. Together, they called Gorman’s mother, Padilla said, screaming into the phone.
Watching Gorman recite her poetry at the Library of Congress and on CBS News since she was named Youth Poet Laureate, Padilla said, has been like tracking a “shooting star.” When Gorman first mentioned her dream of performing at this year’s inauguration, Padilla knew she’d make it happen. First lady Jill Biden suggested that Gorman read at the inauguration after seeing her perform, according to the New York Times.
“It’s almost like we needed Amanda to be the poet,” Padilla said.
As a young Black woman with a powerful command of language, Gorman was able to capture a political moment that has left many without words. Gorman finished writing her inaugural poem after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, referencing “a force that would shatter our nation.” Especially in the aftermath of the riot, Padilla said, the public needed to hear from someone like Gorman, to believe that “there is light.”
Padilla keeps an illustrated poster of Gorman hanging in her classroom. In the image, Gorman is looking up with a book in her hands. “The tyrant fears the poet” is written on the cover.
It felt fitting today, she said, as Gorman spoke just hours after former president Donald Trump departed the White House.
Padilla has been a teacher for more than 15 years. When you have someone like Gorman in your class, she says, you do whatever you can to cheer them on. You save their papers for last, so you can savor every word.
“You try your hardest to say something smart about this brilliant thing you’ve been given,” she said — but mostly you just step to the side and stay out of the way.
On Thursday, in her 10th-grade English class, Padilla will lead a discussion on Gorman. She won’t be the only one.