A Writer is Born

The seventies spring breezes tease me these days, beckoning me outside to see and savor.  Weeks of afternoons brimming with adolescent adventures in poetry are starting to run together, and I find myself as inspired as my sophomores, itching for an authentic night where I can write and feel, to apply the same tips I’m teaching these kids to get writing ideas and express them… maybe even without rhyming.

One of my suggestions in my “How to write poetry if there is a right way” lesson is to go outside and pay attention.  We did that in my honors classes, but a visit from the governor kept my average class inside even after I’d promised an excursion.  When they finished the block with a water bottle fight, I ascertained I’d made the correct call keeping them out of the hallways where they might bring mischief to the attention of some of our most influential stakeholders.

Earlier in the block, I’d explained for the third block in a row that I would teach when everyone had finished their first task.  What should have taken five minutes took twenty, and a one girl complained that it wasn’t fair that they all had to wait for the few lazy stragglers.  While I resonated with her, it’s impossible to teach the faithful over the chaos of post-lunch sugar rushes and flexing hormones.  Allergies and adolescents challenged my voice to echo over the chatter.

The reality was, some of them were intrigued.  I had to look past the clumsy disorder of the rest of the teens in the room to reach the few kids who might find, like I did in spring of my sophomore year of high school, that they are not just people who write… but they will find identities for themselves as writers.  They will find freedom and meaning in the cathartic process of putting pen to paper, abandoning structure and syntax to maximize the free flow of synapses into sentiment.

In short, when I write, I make meaning of life.  I try to teach my kids to do the same.  I see the knock out rose on my way to the porch and have to stop, sniff, savor, and connect the dots.

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My student aide whose blogging pseudonym matured from Star to Stella this year was in their shoes not too long ago.  In her post last week, she devoted written words to her thoughts and feelings as she poured over my past entries, denoting all the similaries in our thematic trends despite the double-decade age gap.  She was right, and she dove deep into her writing identities.  Most days, she shakes her head and wonders, like me, how we’ll get this bunch of students to stop rough housing long enough to teach them the freedom she found two years ago.

Yet, somehow, it’s happening anyway.  One girl anxiously showed me the poem she’d finished after our lesson today.  Another emailed me one to look over.  The first had potential. The second made my heart break.  She’s just a quiet child on the outside, but clearly, this young woman has a coming of age story waiting to be told.  With disjointed line breaks that fit her subject, she underscored what appeared to be grieving a mother choosing drugs over her children.  Was it a true anecdote that inspired this?  I may never know, but the incredible depth of detail suggests that it is.  Maybe, like Stella and I, writing will become her confidant and she will find freedom in facing reality by escaping into language.

Looking back on the past week of trials, I have no idea how great poetry is emerging from the unabashed, uncontrolled chaos.  It seems that this particular blend of adolescent egos thrives on defying structure and syntax – some of them enjoy breaking the rules, and knowing my audience, I sold them poetry as their one chance at an experience with writing that didn’t bind them to their brick and mortar chairs.  I told them that I knew my English nerds would love this unit, but I’d designed it for those young people who were not inclined to fall in love with it the way they are finding this spring.

I don’t look forward to this class.  They take everything I can give them, and for their sake, the more that I have, the better they are for it… because I’ve been reading some of their “first tries” at poetry.  I’m wrong to call them kids.  I was relatively sheltered in white suburbia where Jewish doctors had the best reputations.  It took getting my heart broken at fifteen years old to unearth authentic writing material, replacing the shallow, rhyming odes to love or nature that had dominated my attempts up to this point.

These “kids” are rising to my challenge to push the envelope by writing about those subjects that shake their souls, the good and the bad, and many of them have a loss of innocence tale to tell in shadowed stanza form, where all the academic social wrongs are protected by freedom of expression.  It’s happening in my average class to a degree, but in my last block class today, the poetic synergy was staggering.  How do you write poetry?  I rhymed in my grade school years because I didn’t know what made anything else an actual “poem”.  There’s been an equally tempting spring breeze calling my fourth block class to embrace this unit and expose themselves.  For that to happen, they need to feel safe.

We’d played with poetry during our writing workshop this afternoon, passing around colored sheets of paper on which each member of the class was to add a line of poetry.  There would be four papers circulating: two yellow poems where each student could see one line before theirs, each folding the previous students’ line over his own before passing it on.  You expect a little continuity, but the emerging poem we shared aloud before the bell gave me chills.   It was as if, in the safety of our poetic cluster, primed by the carpe diem lens with which Dead Poets Society’s John Keating first laid the groundwork, had united my teens.

We were all stunned to silence after recitation.  Devices were seamlessly intertwined.  They were one in their pain, in their joy, in their boredom, in their search for meaning. Two green papers circulated as well.  For these class poems, each student simply independently penned one line of poetry to contribute before folding her line over and passing it on.  Blind poetry, perhaps?  Ultimately, I’ve been doing these activities for over a decade, and there are always a couple of jokers.  I expect that.  We giggle a little at the lines that don’t fit, and we derive meaning connecting the lines that weren’t intended by the authors.  It’s fun.  The spring breezes tempted us all outside our comfort zone, however, it seems.

We shared just one of each of my fourth block’s creations.  I had teens hungry for poetry on the edges of their seats after the first two, so I wielded the power to wait and share the last two next block.  After all, there was no way that any class poem, not in all my years of teaching, could culminate into a class poem of more epic proportions.  It was as if twenty teens were sharing the same wavelength.  Every line flowed.  There was a common theme, a story woven that wasn’t what each, individually, intended to tell in the poem.

That’s the beauty of poetry.  It defies social boundaries, laughs in the face of traditional English language conventions, walks the line of school appropriateness.  When Charming sweeps me off to Germany this summer, maybe it will be that time in my life, finally, where I get to be a writer.  For now, as I coax this harmonious fourth block class to the finish line, I feel like I could retire.

Stella and the sophomore stars are still figuring out how they shine best, playing with poetry and words, but exposing themselves takes courage and insight that I’m honored to witness this spring.  When the breezes beckon me outside to write, I take my kids instead.

For now.  There’s some other writers who need to be born, first, I think Charming would agree.

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