I looked up at her face,
not wanting to read further, at least by prose:
the hand shook that wrote that far on the page,
and what weight formed each word, God knows.
Those were the lines from William Stafford’s poem “At This Point on the Page” that got me through a maelstrom of despair last summer, when I tutored a student’s writing. “…such pain was in the crossing of each t…” the poem said, and so it was with my tutee.
Sometime’s it’s poetry, and poetry alone that carries us through the schoolday. I feel for those who have no access to it when they need it. Stafford again, from his poem “Passwords”:
Might people stumble and wander
for not knowing the right words,
and get lost in their wandering?
Both of these poems are from his book You Must Revise Your Life. That theme of revision: appropriate enough for a classroom setting, right?
While we may not die literally, our spirits are in danger every day when we can’t reach students, when bureaucratic mandates crush our hopes, when trust is shattered for whatever reason. Here, in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, is what William Carlos Williams claims:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I buy it.
So what might be some lyrics that can sing us up from our teacherly downswings?
When we can’t reach students, try Wislawa Szymborska’s lines from “Under a Certain Little Star”:
I apologize to everything that I cannot be everywhere.
I apologize to everyone that I cannot be every man and woman.
Those children who come to school worried, about passing tests, about where they’ll get their next meal, about their families in disarray, let the bluesman poet Furry Lewis sing to them:
Some people said worried blues ain’t tough
Some people said the worried blues ain’t tough
But if they don’t kill you handle you mighty rough
I know more than one adult who during secret moments in their lives have curled up on hard floors and listened to such blues. (I might be one.) This allowed them to survive long enough for time to knit back their unraveled souls. Why keep this salve from the children?
Walt Whitman pitches in on this theme in his poem “There Was A Child Went Forth”, after discussing both the love children feel from adults and the abuse and doubts that might be experienced (“…the thought if after all it should prove unreal…”):
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time,
the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so,
or is it all flashes and specks.
Yeah, that uncertainly of emotion, that harsh word from an adult: flashes and specks.
In earlier days, when I was a wandering writer in the schools, I had students from a half-dozen schools combine their responses to “There Was a Child Went Forth” into a long chant, where they sang their multifarious experiences of the world. Inspired by the sections of Whitman’s poem, they wrote about nature, the world of the hopeful and dangerous city, home-life both light and dark, and landscapes. Here’s a stanza worth quoting:
I ride to the field, throw my bike on the grass.
Oh, how long the grass is – as long as my life.
I walk into the field as the rabbit passes by.
I hear a chipmunk in the distance.
I sit down, see wild strawberries.
How small, I think, smaller than a baby’s hand.
Another kid, walking in the park, wrote:
When I go to the park I see children smiling as if someone
is smiling back like the sun smiling with its warmth.
I walk on and see jump ropes twirling around like snakes
trying to break free of their bodies.
Wild strawberries smaller than a baby’s hand. Ropes like snakes trying to break free of their bodies. Don’t you think those dancing images are enough to lift the spirits of a sad child – or adult?
The lesson here? It’s not only the salve of adult poetry that can ease the pain, but that of children.
Here’s a fourth grade girl writing a poem to her mirror:
When I look in a mirror, do I see myself?
Or do I see a shadow of a person?
Sometimes I see a shadow
and other times I see a plain
little girl, which is me.
And this little girl is a good person.
Mirror, you are my reflection
when I’m sad or when I’m glad.
You are my life history when it
comes to being lonely all over again.
You are my hero when it comes
to looking nice and pretty.
When my hair is looking messy,
who helps me fix it up?