He can make you feel as though you are Like Lilly Like Wilson. It starts with a stutter, then an “uh,” “um,” “like.” Sentences are harder to deliver when you know they’re being deconstructed by a YouTube superstar poet.
Taylor Mali’s video “What Teachers Make” has over 2 million views on YouTube and has thrust him into the public’s eye in light of recent troubles concerning the future of educators across the nation.
“I’m definitely not an education expert,” Mali said, sitting in a classroom of college journalism students on Tuesday. “I’m just a poet that writes about what he notices.”
While he may not be an expert, Mali has done his time in the classroom. He spent four years as a substitute teacher in Maine and five more years teaching middle- and high-schoolers math, English and history.
Mali found an inspiring passion through teaching when he went to graduate school at Kansas State University. He wanted to go to learn how to become a better poet, instead he learned that he loved to teach.
“Seeing a lightbulb going on over a student’s head is the greatest feeling ever,” Mali said.
In 2000, though, he left his position in a permanent classroom to pursue a different sort of teaching gig. At about this time of year, for the past 11 years, Mali has been able to write “poet” in the occupation section of his tax returns.
Mali had his first experience with spoken word poetry at a strip club in Manhattan, Kansas. The fourth Monday of every month, the dancers got the night off and the stage was used for an open-mic night for poets and writers. So it was there, with a pole in front of him and a mirror behind, that Mali performed his work for the first time in public.
Mali’s works are based on observations he has made in the classroom or his thoughts on love or even reasons why he could be a poet.
Some of his pieces, like “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” and “Playing Scrabble with Eddie,” are based off experiences in the classroom. Others, like “Why Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog,” and “The The Impotence of Proofreading”, take on lighter issues.
Through his poetry, Mali said that he wants to continue teaching, though there has been a change in audience.
He’s made it a goal to make every performance an inspirational learning experience through his poetry.
“Truth with a laugh sinks deeper than just truth after truth,” Mali said. “If I can make them laugh and make them think, it’s a success.”
Tuesday night, Mali performed for an hour and a half to a room full of future educators, aspiring performers and anyone else who found themselves in the Reilly Room at Butler University. He took questions from audience members and offered words of advice, making sure he got to any question the audience had.
If things go as planned, the world will have 1,000 new teachers thanks to Mali. One Butler student, Danielle, was number 634 in Mali’s list of 650 thus far.
On stage, Mali is comfortable and at ease. With his mane of dark blonde hair pulled back from his face, he wanders amongst the audience, interacting and laughing between his performances. This is a man that genuinely likes what he does.
“I get paid to travel and entertain people with the wacky things that come to mind,” Mali said. “What’s not to love about that?”