On middle school and wisdom…


I’m walking down the hallway of a middle school in Hartford, feeling the crush of adolescent attitude.  I pause when a boy smiles and says, “Hey, I know you.  You’re the poet!”  He then disappears into a swell of back packs and pandemonium.

In moments like this, I must pinch myself…wonder how I got here.  It wasn’t long ago when I would have looked behind me for the poet.  Who?  Where?  Instead, I breathe deeply, smile back, feel blessed.  This is my 4th visit to the school – writing, performing, preparing them for a poetry slam.

In the school’s black box theater, four girls became so overwrought with having to share their poems out loud, they burst into tears and run out the door.  At the end of the day, one of the girls waits until everyone else has left and then asks me if I would like to read her poem.

In it, she writes about living in a world where everyone talks, but no one listens.  A world where society assigns labels to determine who we will grow up to be.  Labels that  lump, allowing some to feel superior and others to feel like junk, “Each label more poisonous than the last.” This seventh grader ends with, “Don’t give in!”  Her words are an itch in a hard-to-reach place.

I like the poem and tell her so, ask why she didn’t want to share it out loud.  The terrified look on her face says it all.  And I think back to a public speaking class in college.  On the first night, we had to introduce ourselves from the front of the classroom.  When it was my turn I stood there crying, said “Fuck!  I can’t do this!” and ran out.  I was 35 years old before I shared my poetry out loud with an audience and even now, these many years later, am not entirely comfortable doing so.  And as I write this, am still wondering how I got here.

The following is a collaborative found poem, meaning I did not write these lines.  They are lines heard from the poems written by those seventh graders.  All I’ve done is rearrange them into something ‘found’, something powerful.

In My Own Fantastic Future

Solitude is who I am –
one cloud, alone.
If only disappearing were an option.

Your harsh words
drown me.
Each letter, bitter as birdseed.

Your harsh words
are a paper shredder
but I carry on.

This child doesn’t need you anymore.
Your stereotypical labels try to tell me
who I am … not me!

This child has his own dreams.
My big debut
is coming soon.

I am a dim light
in a long, dark hallway.
And it feels like joy

as I grow brighter –
a bold sun
pushing away the clouds.

What I have
to give to you
is priceless…

Collaborative found poem, 7th grade
Kinsella Magnet School

They get ‘perfect 10’s’ from me!!


Take poetry for example…


My grandson, Joey, called and left me a voicemail last week:

“Nonie, this is Joey. I want to read you a poem –

The more it snows (Tiddely pom),
The more it goes (Tiddely pom),
The more it goes (Tiddely pom),
On snowing. And nobody knows (Tiddely pom),
How cold my toes (Tiddely pom),
How cold my toes (Tiddely pom),
Are growing.

Okay, bye…for now.”

He has no idea how much his Nonie loves to hear him share poetry with me, how completely whole it makes me feel. This particular poem was written by A.A.Milne (Pooh) and the playfulness of the words and their format probably appeal to him at 9 years old, as much as they appeal to me at…well…not 9.

As someone who works with students of all ages, poetry has a pull for most children until they get into 4th or 5th grade. For various reasons at this point, the lyrical muse often goes into hiding and sometimes, never comes back out. Such a tragic loss of imagination, of connection, of appreciation.

When in the classroom, I often use the image of a fist squeezing the heart, making it hard to breathe…an accumulation of all those yucky feelings we get from time to time, or daily. Writing (creatively) is one way to unclench that fist. Or music or art or sports or reading for the good sweet hell of it. And all are being squeezed out of our school curriculum. No pun intended…well maybe.

I understand the concern in the US. We have fallen behind globally in math and sciences, with countries like Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands out front. We spend more money per student on education, yet the traditional middle and high school curriculum leave little room for inspiration or innovation, for leaps of imagination!

This is not to say science and math are unimportant, but why are we not making room for it all?!

Take poetry, for example. Poetry surrounds us from the moment we are born. We find it in prayer and lullabies, nursery rhymes and song. We learn the alphabet and how to count using poetry. And if nurtured, poetry is capable of lifting us from the everyday, to unclench the fist, to help us breathe.

So Joey…this one is for you!

The more the sun shines (Giggley gee),
The warmer it gets (Wiggley wee),
The warmer it gets (Wiggley wee),
in the sun. And nobody knows (Jiggley jee)
how sweaty my toes (Swiggley swee),
and stinky (I would have to agree).
How sweaty and stinky
they’re growing (Hee Hee).