Five Ways of Looking at a Poetry Class

I.

I bring in two poems: Langston Hughes’ Dream Variations, and He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats. It’s too much material for an hour-long class. Especially since I also want to touch on Dream Deferred and MLK’s I Have a Dream speech.  

The night before class I dreamed that I saw Barack and Michelle Obama pulled over on the side of Route 9 and I stopped my car and ran over to wish Barack luck with his campaign and then he started to dance with me right there on the shoulder of Route 9 in front of the driving range and the little shack where you can buy ice cream in the spring.

So when I woke up of course I was thinking about Barack Obama, and my mind wandered to how he had stood tall after the Iowa caucus saying, “They said this day would never come,” and I wondered what MLK would say about this moment in history, and then a poetry assignment started to coalesce in my mind and Langston Hughes would have to be part of it, and I just love that poem by Yeats, which also plays with shades of light and dark … 

So we have a lot to cover this morning, but J. and R. are sitting in a corner gossiping and I think I see that R. has her cellphone in her lap underneath her desk. And I’m sure she is texting. I’m famous for my anti-cellphone tirades in class but today I just want to teach the girls who want to learn and ignore the girls who don’t.  Like E., who is sitting silent, as always, in her seat along the wall with the coat hooks and calendar behind her. Sitting next to her is a new girl who said she’d never written a poem before.  Then there is M. who wants to know how to spell every word that pops into her head, and K. who wants to do whatever I want her to do without drawing any attention to herself, and just a few other girls.

Every one of them is a story. But first I want to write about E. 

II.

Finally the room is quiet. At least quieter. And the girls are writing poems about dreams. Making my rounds I come across this line on E’s page: “I dream that my brother murder gets justice.” I stare for a moment, trying to make sense of the line. I put an ‘apostrophe s’ after brother and an ‘er’ after murder.

“Is this what you are saying?” I ask. She nods.

I look at the line I just edited. “I dream my brother’s murderer gets justice.” I liked it better before it made sense.

“Your brother?” I ask helplessly. She nods. “I am so sorry,” I say, looking straight into her quiet face, her screaming eyes. I pack a lot of faith onto those syllables. Faith that those words, spoken quietly amidst the sounds of the other students’ bochinche and calls of “Miss, Miss,” and “How do you spell … ?” will carry everything I want to express; every un-sayable thing. Like the wordless well of grief and the crazy faith of dreaming and the easy choice of not daring to dream – and how much I care about E. even though she will never know it – and how much her loss scares me. Because I don’t want it to be true. I don’t want these things to happen to people I know, or to people that people I know love. I don’t want these things to happen. That’s all.  

“I am so sorry.” I try to float all of it on those words … and a little flag of hope, too.  

I let myself dream that the wide still waters in E’s eyes will carry my message inside, all the way in and down to her heart.  

III.

And what about J? What is up with her these days? Before her maternity leave J. had had a breakthrough in poetry class. J. with her anger management issues; J. with her “don’t mess with me” facade. J. came to me and said, “Poetry helps. Poetry is teaching me a new way.” She was my convert! She was the poster child for Poetry Changing Lives! She was writing her anger instead of throwing it at the walls and at everyone who tried to help her.

Then she went off to have her baby and now she’s back.

And so is her attitude.  

“How are you doing?” I asked before class started. “Horrible!” she said. “I’m having the worst f#&@ing day. It was only 10:20 in the morning. She was eating cereal out of an individual serving bowl. “I hate these raisins,” she sputtered. “And the milk is too f#&@ing sweet.” Then she started laughing like the schoolgirl she is supposed to be. 

Five minutes later she tried to pick a fight with me; did that ghetto thing- trying to scare me back. Finally she put her head on her desk and her winter scarf over her head and checked out.  

During writing time she didn’t pick up her pencil — except for a moment to scrawl a few words across one entire piece of loose-leaf paper. “I’m done!” she said, slamming pencil and paper back down on the desk, returning her head to its hiding place beneath her scarf.  

“I dream of going home and everything being good,” she had written. I told her that was certainly a big enough dream to fill a page with, and she said, “Yeah! Like it will ever happen.”  

IV.

Meanwhile, J, and M, and K and maybe E and the new girl, love the poems I brought in.

“That’s a phat poem,” M. says reverently after J. reads Dream Variations aloud.  “It feels like there’s a child spinning around in it,” someone adds. E. and the new girl nod their approval.  I tell them how much Hughes loved music and how he tried to make his poems sound like songs. Which prompts M. to ask what the lines music are written on are called. I drew a staff and a G-clef on the board and label the parts. M sets about writing a beautiful poem that borrows Yeats’ rhythm and in which dreams unfurl on a musical staff while her paralyzed body sleeps on …  

V.

Today during this same poetry class the new girl wrote her first ever poem, for which we all applaud her. J. says she should give herself three POBs (Pats on the Back). I agree. She deserves at least three! It’s a momentous day, after all.

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4 thoughts on “Five Ways of Looking at a Poetry Class

  1. I really like how you brought together so many things —your literal ‘dream’, MLK’s dream, the girls’ despair and also how it could turn to dreams, thru a poem. And to me it points out the extreme necessity of the poet who expresses his or her voice.
    Because when others hear it, it gives so much. I see the cycle continuing, as your students in turn express their voices, as difficult as it might be.
    And thru your posting I hear the candidates now and in history expressing his or her hopes and dreams. Makes me feel more positive and hopeful for the times we facing now…

  2. Oh, this is my favorite post you’ve written so far.

    Like Joanne, I love the way you wove all these strands together into one piece, and I feel your empathy and love for these young women coming up off the page at me.

  3. It’s remarkable how you describe the situation in front of a class, which I know from my own experience. Especially that behind every pupil is hidden a long story, it is the right view on a group and makes the job of a teacher so complex. How you can teach in a fair way for all those different life-stories?
    Besides that I mean, that Langston Hughes has really written poetical song-lyrics and so (with a deep respect for the meaning) I have set a few of his works to music.

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