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.

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3 thoughts on “Holiday Gifts for the Poetry Teacher

  1. It’s so refreshing to hear about the wonderful gifts you received. Especially in this season where we are taught to believe that presents have to have a price tag. And have to be wrapped in paper (or unfortunately plastic). As I have thrown out so much unneccesary wrapping this past week, I think of the effects on the earth too….
    And when I read your entry, it not only makes me happy for how it effects my spirit, but also for the environment!!!

  2. How lovely. It is the real stuff available from teaching, I think.

    I believe that part of what makes these experiences a gift is the fact that you acknowledge them as a gift.
    I think a gift is in the giving but really gets its value when someone has the ability to receive it.

  3. Thank you for your comments on poetry and teenage mothers. I teach at a charter boarding school for teenage mothers in Washington, DC. Like you have observed, these girls have so many gifts to give. In my class — inspired by you — poetry will be the next one.

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