Walking from my car to the front door of the school where I teach, I saw my student, H. standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette and talking to one of her friends. Nothing unusual about that; there was time before the start of our first period, and smoking policy restricts their habit to certain outdoor locations, including the smoking corner. I said good morning as I walked past, then remembered I had a question about one of H’s poems, which will be published in our annual poetry journal. The manuscript was about to go to the printer, and I wanted to make sure I had everything right. I called out to H., asked her to clarify whether she wanted the word ‘blink’ or ‘blank’ in the stanza in question. She told me and I thanked her. “Thank you, teacher,” she replied. Even that isn’t unusual these days, though receiving appreciation from teenage students is nothing to be taken for granted. And a year ago it would have been shocking coming from H. A year ago I’d have called H. oppositional defiant. These days she says things like, “Thank you, Teacher.” It used to be I had to send H. out of the classroom from time to time for refusing to participate or talking on her cellphone. Now she’s a model student.
I’m tempted to give poetry all the credit for her transformation. But that wouldn’t be fair, because H. has lots of great classes and amazing teachers. But I’ll take my share. The truth of the matter is, when H. is frustrated by her slow progress in other classes, she now finds refuge in poetry. These days when she comes into my office to show me her latest poem I’ve learned to ask, “When did you write that?” If she gets a sheepish look in her eye I know it was during math class, her toughest subject, and I’m obliged to tell her that she really should pay attention in her other classes. “You might even learn something you could put into a poem,” I offer, by way of encouraging her to take broaden her academic horizons.
So, back to this morning; back to the smoking corner. After H. and I exchanged information about her poem, I continued on my way. “One more thing,” H. called after me. I turned around. “I decided I want to be a poetry teacher,” she said. Some moments last a good long while. I turned back to see her stubbing out her cigarette. Her friend was tugging her arm in the direction of the convenience store down the street. “You’ll be a great one,” I said, and headed inside.