Big Girls Do Cry

On J.’s first day at our school, where all of the students are teen moms, we happened to be having a special poetry reading. Our guest was Aleida Rodriguez, a well-known poet who has written emotionally moving poems about her mother. During the reading Aleida frequently broke into tears and then just as frequently apologized for crying.


“You don’t have to keep saying you’re sorry,” J. announced from her seat in the center of the room. Who is this new girl who dared to speak up to our guest poet? I wondered. “It should be okay to cry here,” J. told Aleida, “it’s an all-girls school after all.”


As it happens, I think boys should have just as much license to cry, but that’s beside the point in this case. The point is that J., a teenage girl, was wisely coaching us all in the art of tears. Little did I know that first morning, she would continue to do so in the months that followed.


As I’ve come to know J. better, I’ve learned she has plenty to cry about. Her brother can’t seem to shake a drug habit and her father abused both J. and her mother. Remembering herself as a little girl, the year her father finally left the family, J. wrote “I can’t believe an 8-year-old could feel so much hate.”


Last week in class J. cried as she listened to her classmates read poems about one girl’s father who died of AIDS, another’s grandmother who died of old age, a baby who died in utero, and a friend who was shot and killed on the streets. Crying might seem the natural response to stories like those, but all of us have been trained to be strong, and J. and her classmates have had more practice than most at confronting tragedy and burying pain.


This week J. teared  up again when another student, who found out this week that she passed her GED, wrote a poem of farewell to her classmates.


“You’re going to miss her, aren’t you,” I asked as I passed J. a tissue.


“Yes,” she said, “but that’s not all.” She was crying, she explained, because one day she too will graduate. And when she does she’ll have to leave the first school she ever enjoyed coming to. She’ll have to leave behind the best friends she’s ever had. She’ll have to return to a life she described in a recent essay as being ruled by Murphy’s Law: Everything bad that could happen, does, she wrote.


I tried to reassure her that the friendships she’s made here will continue. That college can provide another supportive community of caring teachers and students.


“It’s good to get it out,” another student reassured her as J. cried. Then E. joined in, and soon we were passing the tissue box around again.


It was three minutes to one; time for poetry class to end and the next to begin.


“Okay, everyone,” I said. “Take a deep cleansing breath. Inhale everything that’s good and strong and breathe out all the sadness, anger and pain.” After a great collective exhalation, I told everyone it was time to go. But first, I thanked J. for giving us all the freedom to break down and cry.


When Chicken McNugget is an Adjective

Last week we wrote about dreams. My students’ poems were serious and heartfelt. Dare I say … pedestrian? They dreamed of getting their GEDs and being the best mothers in the world. That’s lovely … moving even … but where were the metaphors? Where was the imagistic writing? Shouldn’t dreams by their very nature be fanciful? Extravagant? 

So this week I handed out sheets of loose-leaf paper. “Fold it into three vertical columns,” I instructed, “and keep it folded so only the first column shows.” When that task was accomplished, I continued, “Now, write a list of adjectives.” I handed out thesauruses, too. “I want interesting adjectives,” I demanded. “Not good, or bad or pretty, but luscious or sluggish.”

To stoke the fires I asked questions: Name some adjectives that describe hair: “Curly, bald, smooth,” students offered. “Now give me some adjectives that describe farts.” Okay, I asked for it: “Smelly, loud, disgusting …”

After a few more go rounds, we refolded the paper so only the middle column showed. Now it’s time for nouns. Again, I tried to nudge their imaginations in new directions: “Name things that are in your pocket or purse, things that you’d see at a funeral, the strangest thing you’ve ever seen …”

Words were flying around the classroom: nouns, adjectives, even some wayward verbs. My favorite was chicken mcnugget, which made its way into the adjective column, and which we decided could be used to describe, for example, a person’s hands. As in, “He has chicken mcnugget fingers.”

Now we unfolded our papers. Put the words “I have in front of each pair of words,” I said. The last column could be used to add a metaphor or further description, as in: “I have a gaping casket, big enough for your big mouth in,” as E. wrote.

Then we read the lists out loud. We had lines like:

I have stubby cigarettes

And tired camels

I have a chicken mcnugget daughter

And two tired priests.

When we read our poems out loud we had stupendous laughter ricocheting off the Silly Putty walls. And a bunch of teenagers who became adults a little too quickly forgot for an hour to be their tough, serious, burdened selves. And best of all, J., who had done nothing but complain about poetry for weeks was suddenly a raucous little elf.

“I didn’t know we could do this in poetry!” she said between bouts of giggles.

When Poetry Class was over I gathered my things and walked out the door, but I could still hear M and J calling out to each other: “Give me another adjective … no, I want something more interesting.”

What’s another word for elated?


What Counts as Success

I was rushing from my office to another, trying to get a few things done before my next class, when I walked past one of the tutors, a retiree who comes to our school once a week to help students with math. He was sitting alone at the tutoring table, which is in what amounts to a wide hallway, and which happened to be on my route. I tried to dispense a cursory hello and keep walking, but the tutor, I’ll call him U, wanted to talk.

“The girl I was working with today left early, she didn’t even stay for the whole hour,” he said.

I know the young woman who he’d been working with. I know that for her the simple act of getting to school means fighting off a host of invisible demons that haunt her mind and tell her she can’t do it, that stir up fears that are so real to her that some nights she doesn’t sleep at all. Like all of our students, she’s also a young mother, and has all the stresses that come with being a single parent to deal with – and she’s still a teenager.

U doesn’t know the details of this student’s life, but he knows that she’s got more on her mind than adding fractions.

“It’s just that I wish I could help more,” he said. And now I noticed his eyes were welling up with tears. Obviously I wasn’t going anywhere fast. Suddenly all that mattered was this lovely man’s sorrow and frustration.

I told him all the things I tell myself when I feel discouraged: “You never know what lessons will sink in later on down the line,” and “You can’t underestimate the power of just being here … what it must mean to this student that a retired white guy comes to the school for an hour a week to help her. That alone has to have an impact …” and finally, “We think by coming here to teach we’re going to change a student’s life, but in the end all that we can guarantee is that we might change our own … and that’s good enough.”

But even after I went on my way, and even after I’d finished teaching for the day, U’s tears lingered with me. We all want so badly to help, and some days there’s just no evidence that we’re doing anything more than taking up space.

The next morning I was eating breakfast and preparing to drive a half hour down the highway to teach poetry to a different group of adult literacy learners. I didn’t feel I’d prepared well enough, and my own insecurities were bubbling up about the value of teaching poetry to men and women who were struggling with poverty, mental and physical health issues, neighborhoods riddled with violence and lord knows what else.

I picked up the book on top of the pile of newspapers stacked at my elbow and opened it up. The book was Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron. On the page I opened up to, she was describing a time when she was working with an addict who had managed to stay clean and sober for a long stretch … then went out and used again. Chodron was extremely upset, and when she expressed her discouragement and pain to her teacher she was chastised. Her teacher “said that being upset with Dan’s binge was my problem. ‘You should never have expectations for other people, just be kind to them,’” he told her. “He said that setting goals for others can be aggressive – really wanting a success story for ourselves … Instead, we should just be kind.”

As I drove to the literacy center where I would teach that morning, those words kept running through my head. I forgot the goals I’d set for the morning’s lesson: I wanted the students to learn one of Dickinson’s poems and to learn about her biography, and to write poems that would make me – and them happy. I wanted them to get over their fears of writing … all in a two-hour workshop.

But by the time I reached my destination I had a new goal. I would go in and be kind. We’d read a poem together, we’d talk about poetry, and hopefully we’d have time to write. As long as I kept my heart soft and kindness in my eyes and hands, I’d count the class as a success.

That’s what I did. The class was a pleasure, and, as it turns out, the students wrote amazing poems, too.

On my drive home, I thought again about U’s eyes welling with tears – his kindness overflowing — I knew what I’d known all along, but I knew it stronger now: He’d been a success, too.