You Get What You Get: A Meditation on Why I Teach

I have spent the morning lying in bed, reading poems in The New Yorker and The Sun. My lover is dozing on the couch, our dog on his chair. And now, I have a half hour to write before I go to work. I’ve lit a candle, a baroque music CD is playing. I feel happy. I think, “I deserve this.” Then the thought enters: “You do, too.” Is that my guilt speaking? Do I feel I have to give this happy feeling away as soon as I experience it?

Of course I believe in, “You do, too.” That is, I believe that J., who is barely 18, a mother of two and who is in the GED program for teen moms where I teach, deserves this. A woman I never met in Rwanda deserves this – or her version or vision of it. But deserve is a tricky word. When bad things happen – do we deserve that, too?

A memory from childhood rises up alongside these thoughts: It is snack time at nursery school. The teacher is handing out vanilla and chocolate cookies and Dixie cups filled with milk. She hands me a chocolate one. I wanted vanilla. When I ask to switch, the other children take up a chant: “You get what you get or you don’t get nothin’.” I can still hear my classmates’ taunting singsong.

I remember feeling surprised: How did all of the other children know that chant? They seemed to know the rules, too: The rules of snack time — and I supposed, the rules for life. Rule number 1 was: “Don’t state your desires,” followed by, “Take what you get and shut up.” That cruel little mob was in the know and I was not.

In my world the rules were different. My mother gave me pretty much what I wanted. At home, I could pick. Here, in the cramped universe of nursery school, the world was less generous. I hated the rules my classmates seemed to be acclimated to, and yet I knew I needed to learn them; that I was supposed to become one of them — become mean like them – or hopeless like them. Perhaps no one was offering them choices. No one was letting them pick.

I grew up defending my right to pick; believing in a kinder way – a more beautiful world. It has become my life’s work to help people recognize this other path.

Sometimes I come at my work – and my life – from a place of guilt: Why is it that in the lottery of genetics and time and place I was born into relative comfort? Other times I think of myself as a messenger – carrying hope from a place that is softer and more colorful – decorated with glinting gold threads, like the ones woven into the scarf that is draped around my shoulders this morning.

And I keep hearing the mean little chants. One such song says I am privileged and can’t possibly understand someone else’s despair. But I recognize those voices now. Those are small voices of hopelessness.

I listen for kindness. I look to the quality of morning light on deep-toned wood. Birds. Candlelight. Soft music. Time to reflect, relax. Beauty of whatever flavor. That’s what I deserve. And, yes, you do, too. It’s what I choose to believe in. It’s what I choose to teach.

Photo by Aja Riggs

La Cucaracha

Growing up as a budding young writer, it seemed anytime something difficult would happen to me my mother would say, “Look at the bright side, at least you’ll get a good poem out of it.” Granted, when I was crying my eyes out over my latest heartbreak, those words could be cold comfort. But of course, in the end, Mother was always right. So it is that when I teach my students, teen moms who can describe the variations in color of cockroaches the way some people can describe the nuances of a sunset, I from time to time like to assign poems about bugs. As much as they hate the crawly crunchy critters that plague their attempts at maintaining spotless kitchen floors, the poems they write about cockroaches … or insects in general … are almost always gems. Here are some suggested poems to get the creative juices rolling. (Who knew there was such a wealth of poetry about the humble, confounding roach!)

  • “My Cockroach Lover” by Martín Espada

  • “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” by Pedro Pietri
  • “The Coming of Archy” by Don Marqui

What Counts as Success

I was rushing from my office to another, trying to get a few things done before my next class, when I walked past one of the tutors, a retiree who comes to our school once a week to help students with math. He was sitting alone at the tutoring table, which is in what amounts to a wide hallway, and which happened to be on my route. I tried to dispense a cursory hello and keep walking, but the tutor, I’ll call him U, wanted to talk.

“The girl I was working with today left early, she didn’t even stay for the whole hour,” he said.

I know the young woman who he’d been working with. I know that for her the simple act of getting to school means fighting off a host of invisible demons that haunt her mind and tell her she can’t do it, that stir up fears that are so real to her that some nights she doesn’t sleep at all. Like all of our students, she’s also a young mother, and has all the stresses that come with being a single parent to deal with – and she’s still a teenager.

U doesn’t know the details of this student’s life, but he knows that she’s got more on her mind than adding fractions.

“It’s just that I wish I could help more,” he said. And now I noticed his eyes were welling up with tears. Obviously I wasn’t going anywhere fast. Suddenly all that mattered was this lovely man’s sorrow and frustration.

I told him all the things I tell myself when I feel discouraged: “You never know what lessons will sink in later on down the line,” and “You can’t underestimate the power of just being here … what it must mean to this student that a retired white guy comes to the school for an hour a week to help her. That alone has to have an impact …” and finally, “We think by coming here to teach we’re going to change a student’s life, but in the end all that we can guarantee is that we might change our own … and that’s good enough.”

But even after I went on my way, and even after I’d finished teaching for the day, U’s tears lingered with me. We all want so badly to help, and some days there’s just no evidence that we’re doing anything more than taking up space.

The next morning I was eating breakfast and preparing to drive a half hour down the highway to teach poetry to a different group of adult literacy learners. I didn’t feel I’d prepared well enough, and my own insecurities were bubbling up about the value of teaching poetry to men and women who were struggling with poverty, mental and physical health issues, neighborhoods riddled with violence and lord knows what else.

I picked up the book on top of the pile of newspapers stacked at my elbow and opened it up. The book was Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron. On the page I opened up to, she was describing a time when she was working with an addict who had managed to stay clean and sober for a long stretch … then went out and used again. Chodron was extremely upset, and when she expressed her discouragement and pain to her teacher she was chastised. Her teacher “said that being upset with Dan’s binge was my problem. ‘You should never have expectations for other people, just be kind to them,’” he told her. “He said that setting goals for others can be aggressive – really wanting a success story for ourselves … Instead, we should just be kind.”

As I drove to the literacy center where I would teach that morning, those words kept running through my head. I forgot the goals I’d set for the morning’s lesson: I wanted the students to learn one of Dickinson’s poems and to learn about her biography, and to write poems that would make me – and them happy. I wanted them to get over their fears of writing … all in a two-hour workshop.

But by the time I reached my destination I had a new goal. I would go in and be kind. We’d read a poem together, we’d talk about poetry, and hopefully we’d have time to write. As long as I kept my heart soft and kindness in my eyes and hands, I’d count the class as a success.

That’s what I did. The class was a pleasure, and, as it turns out, the students wrote amazing poems, too.

On my drive home, I thought again about U’s eyes welling with tears – his kindness overflowing — I knew what I’d known all along, but I knew it stronger now: He’d been a success, too.

Poems my Students* (*mostly Puerto Rican teen moms who’ve dropped out of school) Love

My students have seriously influenced my taste in poetry. After years of teaching the subject to teen mothers who’ve dropped out of high school, I’ve started to see poems through their eyes.

If you’ve never spent time with my students, you might think there’s a danger that my tastes have been dumbed down; that I now shy away from poems with multi-syllabic words or literary allusions. But that would be assuming that my students lack intelligence — which is definitely not the case. I recently read something that said “Beginning readers are not beginning thinkers.” Well said. I might add another level to that: “Low education level doesn’t mean low intelligence.” My students may not be able to spell the word allusion (spell check caught me on that one, too, by the way) but they can smell B.S. a mile a way. Meanwhile, when confronted with a convoluted poem that’s heavy on style and pretense and light on meaning or insight, those of us with MFAs often get lost in circles of doubt about our own intelligence rather than say what needs to be said: which would be, much of the time … as my students say with such eloquence: “This s@&$% is whack!”

I’m all for challenging my students; pushing them to stretch their vocabularies, their imaginations and their confidence in their intelligence. At the same time, they have a point when they get impatient with a poem that’s more about posturing than powerful imagery and emotion.

One of my favorite exercises is to drop a stack of poetry books (anthologies work well) on a desk in the middle of the classroom and pass out sticky notes and pens. The assignment: Read around in these books. Find something you love or or something that makes you think or feel … and put a sticky note on that poem. Write one line about why you like it, and keep reading. When everyone’s tagged at least one poem we go around the room and read our new favorite poems out loud, along with the reasons why we chose them. One group gave these reasons for liking poems:

  • it’s sad
  • it rhymes
  • it’s romantic
  • I can feel it
  • I’ve lived that
  • the word choices are good

As for the poems they chose … a recent round (using the anthology “America’s Favorite Poems” edited by Robert Pinsky) netted the following list of favorites:

  •  “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
  • “Sonnet 29” by William Shakespeare
  • “Minstrel Man” by Langston Hughes
  • “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
  • “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra” by Julia de Burgos
  • “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • “The Sentence” by Anna Ahkmatova