Last school year ended.
That’s it, really. Just done.
No hugs goodbye, no ceremony, no final exams…it just…ended. A day came that we said would be the end and that was that. Screens closed. Silence deepened. Separation spread.
Pandemic possesses the power to distort structure and plans and tradition…the power to permeate even the simplest aspects of our lives until every last detail of our day feels saturated in its heaviness. When school closed in mid-March, there was no way to predict the vastness of what it would mean to go home…especially for my seniors.
As the days wore on and their hope for a more “normal” end to the school year depleted, the struggle to persist in distance learning heightened. Sure, they were lucky to have the opportunity to continue their learning when so many others didn’t, but in the face of so much that seemed lost, in the face of the lack of closure they longed for, finishing the year, I imagine, just felt sort of pointless. Yet, they persisted.
The very last assignment that I asked my AP Lit seniors to complete (outside of their senior projects) involved the composition of a found poem. During our time in quarantine, each of them selected a poet, collection of poets, or poetic movement to engage with. Their early work in this project involved research, connection, analysis, and reflection. For their final assignment, however, I wanted to offer a new opportunity. Something that asked my students to consider the poetry as it was but to also be creative, whimsical, intuitive. I wanted them to take what they thought they knew and to redesign it. This found poem work asked them to craft their own poems, for their own purpose, but, as is true of all found poems, their lines would be pulled entirely from poems already written-in this case, those they had been studying. In a world where my students felt powerless to recreate or rearrange their own circumstances, granting them agency to re-envision poetry seemed the least I could offer.
If I am being completely honest, I wasn’t entirely certain how this assignment would present at the deadline. In any typical year, seniors would have already checked out, but this year…the year of quarantine…the year of the thief of so much… this year, they really needed to be done. I just wasn’t sure that their stamina stipend included constructing a found poem for Mrs. Clark.
True to form, though, they proved my concern to be the product of faulty reasoning.
Not only did many of my students attach notes to their poems explaining how much they enjoyed this work or how much they learned from it, but the work they composed was simply stunning.
Imagine…Adrienne Rich’s poetry re-envisioned and reconfigured to speak for women in the present moment, and I believe for the found poet herself…the lines of various Native American poets merged to create a new poem reflective of respect and understanding of belief and of a people not often honestly taught or depicted in school…Various Victorian poets blended together to set to the page something all at once true to the original movement but entirely relevant today…
Or this…a collection of lines taken from Naomi Shihab Nye and assembled by my student, Lucy…a collection of lines that when removed from the contexts of their original poems and bent to the perspective of a new vision creates new art, new meaning, new power.
(a found poem arranged by Lucy Vanderbrook from the works of Naomi Shihab Nye)
How can we live like this?
Everything we love is going away,
The spaces we travel through are short
Each thing in its time, in its place,
Otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
Someday we will learn how to live
We will try not to argue among ourselves
We will forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
When the rains do not come, or they come
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
Stories, poems, projects, experiments, mischief
Knowing a bigger world loomed. It’s still out there,
Now we are young or ancient
Everything grants you your freedom
But we are still adrift
And then there was also this collection assembled by my student, Molly…lines borrowed from Modern and Contemporary Poets arranged to both signify the moment we currently face and also identify what is still important…what will save us…
Key of Our Times
(lines borrowed from Cummings, Dickenson, Schwartz, Clifton, Nye, Levertov, Harjo, Rilke, and Grotz—arranged by Molly Heurtin)
love is more thicker than forget
Calmly we walk through this April’s day
There is a sadness everywhere present
We have changed, a little.
Number provides all distances
How much – how little – is within our power
you have seen it growing.
the immense loneliness
In the dark.
then you see the sun shining down
A spark of kindness made a light.
kindness – the deepest thing inside,
Deeper than the sea
Sorrow, the other deepest thing
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
As I read poem after poem, I found each carefully crafted to possess its own depth, its own beauty, its own perspective. I found flickers of the familiar in something brand new that presented both comfort and excitement in the reading. I found young people who were writing their way out of their heartache by naming it with the words of others.
And then a thought settled, spread roots and grew…we are in this new moment with so much unfamiliarity, so much unknown, so much fear (don’t deny it). We are grieving the difference between today and yesterday without seeing that yesterday is still today, just rearranged. We have not lost all and there can still be beauty and goodness when the lines we loved so much collide in new and unsettling ways. But our eyes have to be open to the possibility that within this sometimes (often) frightening and foreign landscape we have been forced to navigate are paths tinged with the familiar leading us to something new and beautiful—even if that is only shared vulnerability or the ability to name that kindness is all we have left.
And no, I’ve not lost my sensibility here-I know that the loss of lives and livelihood, the loss of health and well-being cannot be reduced to a platitude. But I also know that there is no making it through without hope.
And what I learned in witnessing the transformation of what was to what could be in those found poems delivered a picture of hope to me that I had not considered…the possibility that while life might look different, we possess the power to distort the loss of what was into what can be.