Over the last 19 years, I have taught about 700 elementary and middle school students. Rarely though, do I write about my students or my experiences in teaching. It is all too close. But last week an unusual occurrence happened during an ordinary school event. I wanted to think it through a bit, and what better way to do that than to scratch out the beginnings of a poem.
Tentatively, the mother walks into my classroom,
and, unlike so many others,
eventually makes eye contact with me;
her son has been in my class
for over a year now, learning to read.
She has combed her hair,
has put on a clean sweatshirt,
frayed at the cuffs, for Open House.
When our eyes meet, I am struck
by how much she resembles a well-known
poet I know, another woman on top
of the world, powerful in her presence
and speech. Both of their faces are long
and narrow, their eyes wide, but the mother
has dark circles beneath hers,
and her thin-lipped mouth hangs open
in a small o in preparation for something
that might surprise her at any moment,
at any cost. Her son has grown a foot
since I started working with him,
and now he stands taller than us both.
He proudly introduces me to his
little sister, a round four-year-old
in a dirty dress who helps herself to a bin
of markers from the shelf, plops them
on a desk, pulls out a chair, scrambles up,
and waits for paper. I place a clean sheet
in front of her. She begins her lines.
The student proudly shows his journal
to his mother, the journal where he has written
the first sentences of his life. His mother
is the most beautiful woman I have ever met.
Working through a poem should be a journey, an exploration of what is unknown at the beginning and what is discovered through step after step, word after word, line after line. For both poet and reader. Giving yourself up to the process can be daunting and frustrating, yet once through the other side, there is a feeling of, “oh, so that’s what that’s about.” If my poems accomplish what I set out to have them accomplish, I probably haven’t thought hard enough about both topic and manner in which to say it. I haven’t treated them, as poet Kwame Dawes says, “like a building;” I haven’t “come to them from all angles, enter[ed] each room till you find the best way in.”
I knew there was something about this parent coming to my classroom for the first time. I was struck by how much she resembled this well-know poet, and how sheer luck plops us into the life we were born into. I know many people believe that a greater being has something to do with where and when we are born, but when I think of myself, and see myself from a bird’s eye view sitting in my living room typing this, I don’t believe anything or anyone predetermined that I would be here and not washing clothes in the Ganges River, for example.
What does this have to do with my poem and that mother and process and poetry in general? Well, the woman resembling another well-to-do woman really got my attention. She looked so much like this other person that I almost gasped when she looked at me. There was something significant about her because she wasn’t well known or a well-to-do person.
But the more I thought about her and the more I worked through that fifteen-minute interaction I had with her and her children, the more I saw how much she loved her children, and how on a work night she found not only the energy to visit her son’s school, but to meet his teachers with whom she wouldn’t be comfortable with. The more I thought about her, the more I found her absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than this famous person who she could pass for. This was the process I went through in coming to the final line of the poem, or at least the process thus far. Should I decide this poem is a keeper, there will be much more process to reckon with. To quote Kwame Dawes once more: “the best poems are fantastically organic, they grow as we grow, in depth, complexity and power.”
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?
Parent Involvement In Education
Sick (because I couldn’t resist).
Vermont Studio Center (where Kwame Dawes is scheduled to read some of his work on Monday, September 24, 8:00 p.m.).