April is National Poetry Month and my work schedule in schools explodes. In just this month, I have written poetry with students from 3rd grade through high school and have been doing this work since 1997. Most of the time, I love what I do!
From where I stand at the front of the classroom, a lot has changed in schools over the past 20 years. One of the biggest changes is a lack of respect for teachers. This comes not just from the students, but from their parents as well.
Parent – Why did you give my daughter a D on her test?
Teacher – She earned a D grade.
P – Did you ever think maybe you’re not a good teacher?
T – Did you ever think maybe your daughter didn’t study?
And maybe the daughter is the angry 5th grader who never sits in the right seat and routinely ignores instructions to do so. Or the oblivious 7th grader who thinks he is so funny and that we all want to watch him pantomime shooting a bird out of the sky.
As a guest in the classroom, I enjoy the creative energy that the arts enable. And I encourage this energy. Do things sometimes become rowdy? Yes, yes they do, but frequently I only have 45 minutes to get their attention, to spark their imaginations, to help them consider poetry as an invitation to breathe…and breathe deeply. To let go of the weight and the worry that too often settles on their young shoulders.
In one of my poems entitled ‘My Muse’, there is a teenage boy in Hartford. I refer to him as not wanting to be in the workshop. He sits in the back row and mostly glares at me. I’m asking the class to write about who they are as color, as nature, as a musical instrument. At the end of the period, this large and angry boy leaves me with a tiny square of paper –
I am a falcon
lord of the skies
fearless swift and mighty
a hunter like no other
who sweeps upon my prey.
And then at the end of his poem, he wrote –
I am a piano made of steel
strong and hard
but with the touch of the right key
I could become a soft symphony.
A couple weeks ago, I shared a line on FB from a poem written by a girl in 7th grade –
I am not a color because I am clear.
No one sees me.
Like the air around us
I am taken for granted.
Many thought the line was sad. Maybe it was, but also hopefully enlightening for the girl. The fact that she was able to put a ‘name’ to how she feels, to put it into words and then take those words from inside herself and speak them in the light…this can be very powerful and for some (myself included), life changing.
A 5th grader recently wrote –
Red is the feeling you get
when someone you love passes away
and you just wanna keep crying
till the words dry out.
I was pregnant at 16. Thank God, I was addicted to the written word and not drugs or alcohol. This is when I began journal writing and haven’t stopped since. Here are a few lines from a poem about my addiction –
Then pregnant at 16,
writing became the white horse
I couldn’t kick.
I clung to that tail
through years of uncertainty
using poetry to puzzle out questions
with no answers.
While the rest of my life dissolved around me
I felt complete with a pencil in my hand.
Writing continues to make me feel whole. It allows me to breathe, whether I share my work with an audience or keep it private in a notebook. And when I ask a class -“Who doesn’t like poetry?” – it is often those who immediately raise their hand (and sometimes both feet) who then come up to me at the end of the period, hand me their poem and ask, “Did I do it right?” And I don’t even have to read the poem to know, “Yes, it is exactly what I was hoping for.”