While in graduate school at the University of Houston, I supplemented my income by working as a writer in residence for Writers in the Schools (WITS). I was with WITS for three years, during which I visited third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms, and worked with groups of students visiting the Menil museum of art, the Houston Historical Society, and the Houston Arboretum.
When first hired by WITS, I expected that working to explain some of my favorite poems to fourth graders would result in me becoming a better teacher of poetry. What I wasn’t expecting was that (thanks to having my brain blown apart on a weekly basis as I browsed my students’ folders of barely legible poems) I would become a better poet.
Here are some lines written by students in grades 3rd-6th:
“The life of my heart is crimson.”
[Writing about a family member’s recent death:]
“My brother went down/ to the river and put dirt on.”
“Peace be a song, silver pool of sadness”
“Away went a dull winter wind that rocked harshly, and bent you said, ‘Father, father’.”
[Writing about a terminal illness:]
“I am feeling burdened and I taste milk…… I mumble, ‘Please, please run away.’ But it lives where I live.”
“The owls of midnight hoot like me shutting the door to nothing.”
[Writing about life as a movie:]
“The choir enters, and the director screams ‘Sing with more terror!!!’”
“I have provisions. Binary muffins. It’s an in/out/in/out kind of universe. We cannot help you, this is a universe factory. A sound of rolling symbols. Disappearing rocks, screams of lizards. Sanity must prevail. Save vs. Do Not.”
“I, the star god, take bones from the underworlds of past times to create mankind.”
These young writers are addressing subjects that still obsess poets fifty years older: sadness, death, love, responsibility, aging, family, loneliness, and refuge…and they are addressing these subjects in language that is new, and thus has the power to emotionally effect a well-seasoned (/jaded) reader. The average fourth grader is able to do this because she hasn’t been alive long enough to know how to do it (and by “it” I mean talk about the world) any other way.
Story time: When I was a child I believed that one day I might be allowed to cross into an alternate dimension by walking through a quilt hanging on my living room wall. As I got older I stopped believing that this was a possibility—not because I grew to believe that the universe was not an extremely strange place where incomprehensible things could happen on a daily basis, but because I passed year after year after year not being able to enter the spirit realm through a wallhanging.
Anecdote that I hope you’ll find relevant: When Jean Piaget began studying the intellectual processes of children, he was not doing so because he had any special interest in children. Piaget was interested, rather, in the intellectual processes of (adult) humans and was seeking a control group. [His first thought was that the best control group would be comprised of martians but, as he did not have access to martians, he decided to use children since children possessed what is farthest from human consciousness.]
So let’s look at what happens to our young writers as they age [I took these lines from poems written by middle-school/ high school students (Italics, mine)]:
Snacking on this and that my friends and I keep the party going even when it is over”
“Whispers of a secret crush being unraveled”
“I’m trapped in this hole that I can’t break through”
“Barack Obama in the White House. I can feel theinspiration Can you feel it?”
“Now I feel secure with my head held high.
Sad times. By middle school/high school, the average student has learned how normal people talk. The resulting language is underwhelming and predictable—the safe regurgitations of a thoroughly socialized consciousness.
While the average older student’s poems are heavy with allegiance to a limited view of reality, the average younger writer’s vision of the world is nimble and surprising—bazaar, yet true.
Last year I spent every Saturday tutoring an extremely undersocialized kid in vocab. When I taught her the word blandishments (“to flatter, coax, sweet-talk, appeal to”) she wrote this sentence: “The blandishments of the sugar flowers made the cake so much more inviting.”
The sentence is interesting because the student understood that a blandishment is something that attracts favorable attention without fully realizing that people almost always use the word to refer to a human action.
“What kind of world do we live in when young men are so proud of violating unconscious girls that they pass proof around to their friends? It’s the same kind of world in which being labeled a slut comes with such torturous social repercussions that suicide is preferable to enduring them. As a woman named Sara Erdmann so aptly tweeted to me, “I will never understand why it is more shameful to be raped than to be a rapist.”—Jessica Valenti, In Rape Tragedies, the Shame Is Ours (via rhrealitycheck)
“So, I guess that’s what happens, when you fall in love with that perfect someone you just never want to fall out, because they treat you right, you know, like they give you kisses and they remind you of how beautiful you are, and how sweet you make them feel, and they do all kinds of things just to see you smile.”—Abraham M. Alghanem, Summer and Autumn (via mediwriter)
I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir, because I'm not myself you see.
I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!
-alice in wonderland
There are days when i look at myself in the mirror and think, HAVE I CHANGED? i rack my brain and can’t seem to put my finger on what or when or even how. I can’t remember if the night before i saw the same thing i see in the morning or if its been there a while. I feel different, something shifted deep down inside. I became the next puzzle to solve for. I became the great ‘Who AM I?’ question hanging in the air. There is a part of me that still hurts with betrayal of the the worst kind. Apart that has to relearn to trust and have faith in those around me. Recent events in the last 3years has left me wary and jaded about certain things that i have yet to make peace with. Sometimes no matter how much you want to take that leap of faith and dive right back in with an open mind and heart you can’t. It takes the right person to cross your path and show you that little by little you can have that open mind point of view you so longed for and craved to have once more. Healing is still in progress and traumas must be surpassed one at a time. The wall must come down but that right person is missing to help you find your way out of the rumble when it does. They might not even stay long in your life but they come in and rescue you when you need it the most. The damage is done, the pain is felt and a part of you broke with it, it’s something that dies inside of you. I’m trying really hard and some days i just want to throw in the towel. The darkness in my mind expands and reminds me of that dark place i use to be in and the things that can get me there so easily all over again. It’s been such a long time since i’ve cried but tonight it felt like just what i needed so instead of feeling angry at not being able to stop my tears i felt relief. A pressure in my chest easy and clarity enter. I’m not the same person i was 3years ago or even long before that, not even the same person i was last year or last week. I’m not so sure of who i was or where i am all i know is that one day at a time i’m trying to get to who i will be for the rest of my life. I can only hope that the goddess looks down kindly upon me on this journey. Some day i will have the strength to fight back but for now i need to find something so much more important. So in a way i’m a lot like Alice right now lost in my own type of wonderland trying to make sense of the things i’m seeing through this looking glass… … i just have to keep in mind that we are all mad in this world in our own way.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
so this journey might take me sometime since i ditched the road map, all i know is that at the end i will be where i need to be. Trust my guide she is the light at the end of the tunnel. I will keep believing in impossible things and look up at the sky where i know she will be to remind me that hope is never truly far or out of reach. Even on the nights that she isn’t up shinning i still know she is there….
my scars will always be mine one day i’ll share all of them but for now i need them to stay mine….
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity.”—Gilda Radner (via kari-shma)