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