It was a tough assignment for any writer. Find words of hope after a deadly pandemic, deep political division, and a Capitol insurrection. But Amanda Gorman found the words when she became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. History with her reading of her poem, "The Hill We Climb."
A Shorewood native knew Gorman years before the young poet's international acclaim.
Award-winning poet and editor Dinah Berland graduated from Shorewood High School in 1959.
She calls Milwaukee the place of her youth. She has a fondness for her hometown and loves the lake and architecture.
She still returns to visit friends and relatives. Berland now lives in Los Angeles.
When asked if she knew right away, Gorman was special.
"Oh, absolutely! There was no question," said Berland.
Berland met Gorman through an organization called "Write Girl." It pairs mentors with mentees.
"I got a call from one of the organizers and they said I think we have the perfect mentor for you. Her name is Amanda Gorman. I'm just thrilled for her. I don't really take any credit because as I said she was already very accomplished. I'm just gratified I think of her as a friend now," said Berland.
Berland recalls, "I mentored her formally through graduation of high school. Then after that, we continue to see each other. She came to my house, so I went to some events at her place, and then I met her in Washington D.C. where she gave her talk as the National Youth Poet Laureate. Unfortunately, her mother couldn't make it because she teaches, and it was at the beginning of the semester. So, Amanda invited me as her special guest."
Berland recalls a teen of poise, confidence, and natural talent.
"We stayed in this nice little Georgetown hotel where she dressed and put on her makeup all the while listening to Hamilton on her phone. Then we took a fancy Uber car to the Library of Congress. She gave a reading that just was a knockout! She got a standing ovation," recalls Berland.
Berland, a retired senior editor for Getty Newspapers, has published poems in dozens of literary magazines. She describes her approach in working with Gorman.
"She was already very accomplished as a poet, but I thought it would be great if she didn't know her heritage of African American poets, I could bring that to her. That would be special. And the other thing that I wanted to bring to her was something that I learned in graduate school which is reading like a writer. And that means reading a poem, figuring out what the poet was doing, and do it yourself," said Berland. "She knows how to understand what it is that she's speaking toward. She majored in sociology at Harvard, graduated cum laude from law school. She has a big vision, she has a sense of the world, and her place in it. And it's a very expansive place. So, when she came to be the inaugural poet, it just seemed right she was the right person, especially after all the violence, you know, and all the struggle of African American people. Now, there is this lovely girl, and she acknowledges her own background, right in the poem, you know, a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother. How perfect and beautiful that is."
Berland is approaching 80 years old, and still sets goals, and has a clear life purpose.
She shares, "To know who I am and be able to use my whatever gifts I may have been given to help others."