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After 20 Years An Oak Park-River Forest Poetry Teacher Retires, But Not Without A Grand Finale

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A suburban teacher is about to retire after decades in the classroom, but he's going out with a bang.

CBS 2 Morning Insider Marissa Parra shows us the big finale and a parallel to a big Hollywood movie.

There is a wall at Oak Park River Forest High School that has over 20 years of history.

"We've got students, alumni, we even have Natalie with President Obama."

To be an alum of Peter Kahn's class and program is to be a family -- all of them bonded by poetry. Proud alums of the same program.

"For me, it was the safest space I could find in the building," said Alani Espinosa, student.

That space was the Oak Park and River Forest high school's spoken word club.

"It was a home for students of color like myself," said alum Christian "Rich Robbins" Robinson.

You could say Kahn is like Oak Park's John Keating, the beloved English teacher from the film Dead Poets' Society, played by Robin Williams -- only there's one twist.

"I saw that movie when it came out, and at the time I hated poetry," Kahn said. "I had been teaching about dead white poets because that's what I thought we were supposed to do. I hated it and my students hated it."

It wasn't until years later when the Oak Park English teacher stumbled upon spoken word.

"I saw how powerful an impact it had on students, it got them to read and relate to contemporary poetry, particularly from poets of color," Khan said.

He was inspired to launch a high school program in 2003.

"Slam is accessible," said alum Natalie Richardson. "For me, it inspired my passion for writing and kickstarted my career."

You probably know spoken word even if you don't think you do. Poet Amanda Gorman performed it at president Biden's inauguration. Now, these local poets have their own words to share with the world.

"PK can find people that graduated before I was even born and can still bring them and put them in this book like they never left," said student Jalen Sharp.

PK, their captain for the last 20 something years, is retiring, but he had one final assignment -- to get their spoken words published from the stage to the page in a soon to be released book called "Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School."

"This is the story of the strongest spoken word club program in the country, probably in the world, it's the Avengers uniting," Robinson said.

Kahn can't take his wall of fame home but the words of 76 poets he calls family are close enough.

"I'm gonna hold it in my hands, I might start crying to be honest. It's been a three-year process but it represents my whole teaching career really," Khan said.

You can pre-order the book, "Respect the Mic" on the Penguin Random House website. Learn more about the Oak Park-River Forest Program by visiting the OPRF spoken word website.

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