It’s one of those weeks where I’ve basically moved my office to the kitchen table. I want to be near the stove, in the center of the house with dogs all around me as I read student writing, and sometimes, do a little writing myself. I’ve been teaching the students about distillation, the extraction of essential meaning from their free writes. We write freely, and then seek the lines in our writing that want to become poems, the ones with a spark of light or some warmth that draws us in. Today, we wrote about photographs, recalling an important one in our minds, and writing with the first line “In this one you are….”
In another class we talk about metaphor, writing about a hunk of Selenite I bring in, we say it’s a rocket, a tower, and a fish. We talk about about how poetry is a way of seeing, and later I think I should have said it's like finding shapes in clouds.
One student wrote,“Coming from nothing and having nothing are 2 different things that somehow tie together like the lace on your shoes.” I staple my positive feedback to the piece of notebook paper they have torn out and thrust at me without meeting my eye. The words I offer back seem inadequate to such a powerful piece of writing, such an elegant metaphor.
It’s no secret that schools in Portland are not created equal, and I notice how in some schools the water fountains are taped up because of lead contamination, or the first sink I try in the student bathroom doesn’t work. It’s no secret that we are not given equal opportunity in this country, yet it’s hard to see because it’s easy to cover up realities like homelessness. But in every public school I’ve served there are kids who write about it, or who write about having more homes than most of us have in our adult lives.
Can I just say again that teachers are amazing and sometimes I wish it was my calling to be one, instead of my actual calling, which seems to be, 'that lady that comes around to your school with dog hair on her sweater, a hunk of Selenite in her pocket, and some poems?'
I notice the care and stewardship the teachers have for the students. At most schools, the staff are on high alert, making sure I have a badge on and am supposed to be there. Twice this year I’ve seen shouting fights break out and in both situations a teacher just de-escalated the situation like magic. Students stop by when they are hungry and bum Ramen noodles off a favorite teacher. They ask if they can do anything in return and she asks them to clean the whiteboard. "The holidays can be tough," I've heard more then one teacher say; they keep an extra stash of candy for students on bad days.
I don’t think that learning how to write poetry will save your life, save the world, fix the sinks, or even be as good as candy. In fact, sometimes I wonder if the sinks should be fixed instead of raising money to send me in. And then I read lines like “Coming from nothing and having nothing are 2 different things that somehow tie together like the lace on your shoes” and I know in my bones that this student needs to be heard. And the words are so good, the metaphor so simple and true, like one of those arrows dipped in poison or love-powder, you know, one of those God-like arrows or just a really good peanut butter and jelly sandwich that tastes like strawberries and bakery bread, and I can’t really write that in a feedback note so I just hope they know, their words were so good I googled them. And then I felt like an jerk because I didn’t find anything.
And even if I did, if they had heard those words somewhere, and loved them enough to remember them, and wrote them back down, and handed them to me, they know about poetry and how to find it. And hopefully, when I hand them back my response it will soften their eyes to themselves, for we are the harshest fun-house mirrors, our own worst critics, and the voice is louder when we experience trauma when we are young. And poverty is trauma, and as I overheard a teacher say recently, “Fuck poverty.”