Holiday Gifts for the Poetry Teacher

Photo by Aja Riggs

This time of year in traditional schools, teachers receive presents from their students, or more likely from their students’ parents. Not in my school. For one thing, we don’t give grades, so there is no need for the students to try to soften up their teachers. For another thing, our students are teen mothers who are subsisting on welfare checks and so there is no expectation that they’ll buy mugs that read: #1 Teacher, or little ceramic urns that say “Ashes of Problem Students” or even bottles of perfume or winter scarves … which is just as well as far as I’m concerned.

I was aware, however, that this past week … the week before our holiday break, I did receive some gifts from my students. Not that they were aware they were giving them, mind you. There was nothing wrapped in paper or tied with a bow. But gifts were offered nonetheless. My presents included:

1. Inspiration. Y. telling me she was going to buy herself a notebook because she’d begun writing poems at home.
2. Enthusiasm. T. mentioning on Wednesday that she had been feeling lethargic about going to school that morning, but then she remembered she had poetry class in the afternoon. That thought, she told me, helped her muster enough excitement about getting up, getting her son dressed, and getting out of the house in time to make the bus.
3. Focus. C. is back at school after her maternity leave. After the rest of the class had finished writing and was starting to share their poems, C. said she didn’t want to read. Turns out she was too busy writing. She churned out 3 poems in an hour-long class.
4. Learning: E. defined the word metaphor for the class, N. helped her spell the word comparison, and A. waxed poetic about sensory detail.
5. Tears. Two students cried during classes last week. H. wiped tears from her eyes as she read a poem about being abandoned to foster care by her mother, and L. continues to write about her baby daddy who is soon to be shipped off to Iraq … even as their relationship falls to pieces. She cried as she read a poem about every detail she wants to forget about him while he is gone: The sound of his voice, all the happy times, his touch on her skin …
6. Poems … but that’s nothing new. Every week I harvest a new crop of heartfelt efforts, each one a testament to stamina, to determination, to trying. Each one a gift.

Vocabulary Lesson

broken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgIt is always tricky choosing poems for my students. I want to challenge them, but I don’t want to lose them. Too many words that they don’t know, and … goodbye. They’ve checked out. The red flashing sign that spells S-T-U-P-I-D goes off in their minds and nothing I do or say will bring them back. I want to give them all new glitter-spewing signs that read L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G, instead.

So, Wednesday morning I read the class three short poems, one each by Charles Simic, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker. Each poem was visual, vivid and full of metaphor. Simic compared a watermelon to a green Buddha. Walker compared her moodiness to a flood. Giovanni compared herself in love to a leaf falling from a tree.

Two words popped up that none of my students knew: Impartial was one. Walker’s brow-black mood was like the impartial waters of a deluge, flooding everything in sight.

Giovanni’s poem gave us the word impale … her leaf was impaled on her lover’s branch. My students will now never forget the meaning of the word impale, since after we discussed the actual leaf being impaled on a branch, I reminded them that this was a love poem, after all, and I invited them to consider what else the poet might mean by impale? What can I say, at least half the class incorporated that new vocabulary word into the poems they wrote that morning.

Meanwhile, D. had a forlorn expression on her face. D. is a newly hatched poet. Two months ago she probably had never read a poem. Now she wants to be a poet! The local paper chose one of the poems she wrote in our class for publication, and the next week we had a visiting poet do a reading at our school, and now she is a woman transformed. She has a mission. This high school drop out whose pregnant belly looks ripe as a watermelon, wants to write.

“How am I ever going to write poems with words like that in them?” she cried out, casting a defeated glance at the white board, with our new words scribbled in trails of thick blue ink.

First, I told her, you are going to use all the words you already know. Then, I told her, you are going to write down any words you don’t know and learn them. And year by year, I promised her, she would know more and more words.

Then I felt my heart break. I felt what she already knows … that she’s pretty far behind. I also saw what she can’t quite see. How young she is, and how easy it would be, relatively speaking, for her to really catch up; swim in the dictionary and come out with new syllables dripping from her tongue. Then I saw what she feared: The baby coming. The welfare trap. The neighborhood where bullets fly, and where the streets are paved with drugs and drug money, and no money, drug feuds and crushed hopes.

Then I pulled out the thesaurus. And I handed it to her.

Then I did what I always do. I hoped for the best.


Photo by Aja Riggs copyright 2007

Euphoria yoo-fawr-ee-uh –noun

My students are starting a poetry blog. They chose as the blog’s title: Poetry Is a Mirror (we’re not quite ready to take the wraps off yet, but stay tuned). The title, they told me, means that poetry is a mirror in which we can see ourselves more clearly.

Maybe I should change my blog’s title to Students Are a Mirror. That’s because my students are like a mirror in which I can see myself more clearly. Or at least, they let me see myself as they see me.

Here’s an example. Recently in one of my classes, the students were out of control. They were thumbing cell phones under their desks (as if I can’t see below the horizon line of their table tops), they were whispering to one another, they were talking out of turn … basically they were doing everything they could to keep me from teaching. I could feel my frustration level rising as I asked for their attention again … and again. Finally I raised my voice, something I don’t like to do unless pressed. “I am really unhappy with the way you are all behaving today,” I said, in what I thought was my strictest teacher voice. I went on to lecture them about how disrespectful I thought they were being and if you’ve ever been or had a teacher, you know pretty much how the rest of my speech went.

When I was done, S., who was among the worst offenders, looked up at me with a genuine look of confusion on her face. “But Miss,” she said, “if you are so unhappy, then why are you smiling?”

Good question.

Then this week, we were working on metaphors. I asked everyone to say how they were feeling, and then to compare that feeling to something else:

“I’m happy like flowers,” one student said.

“I’m sad because I can’t be with my son today, I feel like a puzzle that’s missing a piece.”


“I feel tired, like a grizzly bear in October.”

“What about you Miss, how do you feel?” a student asked me.

Another good question. But before I could answer they started to answer for me:

“You’re hyper,” one girl said.


“You’re like a battery …” someone else suggested.

“… that’s all charged up.” her neighbor added.

Okay, so now my face was red, like an apple. But I had to go on with the game I’d started. “I’m energetic, like a super-ball,” I said. And once again I was surprised to see myself through their eyes.

 Then one more reflection was mirrored back to me. This time another teacher was going over vocabulary words with the students. The word was Euphoric. They reviewed the definition. Euphoric, relating to Euphoria: a feeling of happiness, confidence, or well-being sometimes exaggerated in pathological states as mania. 

“Oh,” S. said. “I get it. Euphoric is what the poetry teacher is.”



I suppose I like the view through the mirror my students hold up to me. Well, “exaggerated in pathological states …” isn’t exactly what I hope they see when they look at me, but teaching poetry does make me happy. Sure, euphoric even.


What is this s&*#@?

N. is a new student. She comes into class swearing. “What is this s&*#@?” And then, F%$#@ this, and F%$#@ that.

“You’re in school, I remind her.”

“So?” She asks? “S&*#@ comes out everyone’s ass, why can’t I say it?”

“Because you’re in school,” I say.

N. is wiry. Her jaw is set to challenge but her dark eyes sparkle. She has long black hair, and there’s a purple crescent moon under her left eye from when she got jumped during lunch the other day. She wears the black polyester pants from her uniform (she’s an aide at an old folks home) beneath her puffy black winter jacket, which she doesn’t take off during class.

I walk around the room, checking on students’ progress. She crooks her arm over her poem. “Don’t read it,” she warns me.

“I won’t if you don’t want me to,” I say.

“You’ll be angry at me.”

“I doubt that,” I say.

She pushes the paper toward me. In her poem she has compared the beauty of her face to new grass and the moon. And then I see the line she thinks will anger me. She writes that her teeth are f%$#@ed like the ghetto.

“You were wrong,” I tell her, “I’m not angry. I think it’s a beautiful poem.”

She looks at me as if she’s waiting for more; the part where she has to go sit in the principal’s office or something.

“What about …”

“It works in this poem,” I tell her. “A poet has to choose the right word for the poem.”

The other day in class she came in swearing again. “Save it for your poem – but only if you need it,” I say.

“But I feel like s&*#@!”

I tell her that expression is a cliché, and not worthy of a poet. We discuss metaphor briefly. “Compare how you feel to something else,” I challenge.

She sits down to write. Her poem is full of heartbreaking sadness. In it she describes her uncle’s death, and her feelings of guilt that she is somehow to blame. She compares her grief to the darkness, then she writes, “I feel worse than what happened to the Twin Towers.”

As she reads the poem to the class she begins to cry.

Not only were those swear words a cliché, I think, they were a shield, too. But I don’t deliver any more lectures. Instead, I just pass the box of tissues and tell her how much I liked her poem.

Dear Poetry Lady …

I recently received this email from a friend, whose son is in grade school: 


I’ve been looking for short things to read to H. at night (a tradition we still carry out) and tried out some poetry on him. I read some selected poems from Garrison Keillor’s book Good Poetry. He seems to like the accessible ones, and if they have a humorous flair, that’s even better. I was wondering if you have any suggestions of poetry books or poets that he would like that would be appropriate for his age. He really likes Shel Silverstein but I want to expose him to poetry that makes him think about things a little differently (instead of pure humor). …. What poets do your students appreciate?


Rather than answer my friend’s email right away, I first had to sit and ponder the joy of her missive! In it I sensed the promise of a whole new genre of advice columns. Imagine: The Dear Abby of Poetry! The Miss Lonely Hearts of Verse! A trusted bibliophile everyday people could write to with their tales of poetic woe. I can see it now:

Dear Poetry Lady,

After years of searching I finally found the woman of my dreams. On her birthday, I wrote her a poem, believing that words from the heart are more valuable than any bauble I could purchase with cold cash. But rather than swoon, she frowned and asked if I was kidding! Can this relationship be saved? 

Dear Poetry Lady,

I’ve published two chapbooks of poetry, and have had a poem accepted to the New Yorker. Sounds like the life every poet dreams of, right? But I have a deep dark secret and I live in fear of having it exposed: I don’t know what iambic pentameter is and I’ve never written a sonnet in my life … What’s a fraud like me to do? 

Dear Poetry Lady,

My mother-in-law writes bawdy limericks and insists on reading them to my four-year-old whenever she baby sits. I work full-time and can’t afford to hire a nanny — but I don’t want my child to be exposed to such inappropriate nap-time reading either! What’s a working mother to do? 

In the meantime, I guess I’d better get back to my friend’s email. Once I compose a list for her, perhaps I’ll post it here. And I’ll keep waiting for those plaintive pleas for poetic advice to appear in my inbox!