thank you note

Somewhere around seven years ago, in what were still the early days of my school’s existence, a junior came to me and pleaded with me to help her start student council. We had tried student government, but it wasn’t affiliated with any state or regional organizations. This student was looking to do something more…something bigger…something lasting. I hesitated. This felt like a lot of work and at the time, I was still only teaching at the school part time, still in what would be the early stages of the vertigo debacle and my kids were merely 4 and 6. I didn’t feel like I could really add anything else without risking health and home. However, this young woman persevered and given that I had taught her everyday of her high school career, it didn’t take long before my will crumbled. My response to her?

“I will help you get it going, but I will only help for a year. After that, someone else will have to take over.”

I feel like, after typing that statement, I can hear every teacher who might lay eyes upon it roaring in laughter at its ludicrous nature. One year agreements like this never work in school. Everyone is busy; everyone has obligations, and no one wants to take on more. Once you say yes to something, it is yours…eternally. Important to note…the reason I agreed to help wasn’t only because I couldn’t stand to disappoint a student who meant so much to me. The truth is that I took on creating our student council, despite my lack of experience and knowledge, because if she were my kid, I would want a teacher to do the same.

In my time as student council supervisor, my student leaders instituted heaps of traditions; created our first winter formal, prom and homecoming; began an annual celebration of People In Need of Kindness (PINK Week); fostered field day and countless other activities that took a skeleton of a school and imbued it with heart, spirit and personality. I regretfully complained too often about the work being too much, but truly I lived proud of my kids who became and remain the true architects of so much our high school.

When I traded in my student council role for that of principal, a dear friend and colleague took over and her joy, even in the stress, of helping these kids to grow and learn as young leaders makes me proud, makes me thankful. This phenomenal teacher and delegates of her student council are all at state convention right now celebrating several enormous successes for our little school with big dreams and the only way I can think to explain my pride in this moment is that of a grandparent doting on her grandchildren. I know where this council began…with just a few members who went to their first convention having no idea what to expect or how to be in that space. I was there for the growing pains in the days when we were defining who we wanted to be as a council. And to see all they have accomplished now from a different role–as their principal, well, there just aren’t enough words. These kids and their advisor are just spectacularly gifted and joyful humans and the world is a better place for their presence.

And that whole bit about hoping someone would do the same for my kiddo has been fulfilled. My 12 year old is at this same state convention with his junior high advisors who took the leap and brought ten, 12-14 year olds to experience this remarkable event. He is having the time of his life, meeting kids from across the state, and learning what it means to truly be a leader (something he will learn far better at this convention than by watching many leaders in this world today). The gratitude I feel for the teachers who gave up this weekend with their families has consumed my heart.

This is what teachers do, day in and day out. They sacrifice their time and their sleep for the benefit of their students. Whether by braving student council conventions three hours from home or by staying up late to write encouraging comments on papers or by simply being a listening ear, teachers give of themselves without asking for much, if anything, in return. And they do not receive enough praise nor enough sincere thankfulness. But they also do not often ask for it. The breaking apart of the self for the good of the other is just what a teacher’s heart is compelled to do.

However, the gift of my kiddo attending this convention with three enthusiastic, caring teachers has seemingly become all the return on my 20 years of teacherly efforts that I could ever need or ask for. And you can be certain they will know the depths of my gratitude.

(Day 12!)

unexpected

Pretty early in my teaching career, I realized that no matter how well I knew my students, my barometer for the questions that might stir them wavered in its accuracy. Some days I would anticipate a raucous discussion only to be met by a few meager, diffident responses that were really only offered aloud to absolve us all of the weight created by awkward silence. Other days, I would anticipate a quick idea share only to find myself suddenly immersed in intense inquiry. The easy answer here is that teenagers are unpredictable. I could simply sigh in frustration and place the blame on them for their inherent fickleness and never dig any deeper. Honestly, I am pretty sure that I would have some company in this reaction.

The truthful answer, though, is that a whole host of components often beyond their control (the day of the week, the conflicts they are confronting outside the class, the amount of sleep they have been able to accrue, their comfort level with every other human in that room on that day, the text beneath the text in the question itself),  could deter or encourage their ability to respond. The other part to this is sometimes the question itself is faulty-maybe removed from any sensible context. Understanding this has lead me toward teaching students how to craft substantive questions for themselves and then turning the role of the asking to them…giving them the power to sculpt and shape our talk in a way that is meaningful to their lives while I am there to simply provide boundary, to push further, to require a deeper exploration, to help maintain respect.

Getting to this point was a process of letting go because sometimes I really just want my students to talk about what I am curious about–to explore the parts of a text that I find super meaningful. I suppose that is a search for connection in some way, but a stronger connection is built on respect . When I respect my students’ ideas and abilities and when I open the opportunity for them to invest themselves in their class rather than simply permit them to operate in mine, suddenly we are in community as learners in a shared space…and in that moment the real learning occurs. In that moment, engagement receives the oxygen it needs to ignite and suddenly school is no longer something we are doing to our kids, rather it becomes an education they are creating for themselves.

But today, I broke my rule. I asked the question. We are preparing to read a story and I wanted to lay a foundation of sorts before I transition the weight of the work to their intellect. I had no idea how they might respond. I suspected they would have opinions to share…I suspected that they would have a stake in the conversation…but I could not be certain. They were to answer first in their writers notebooks (a bit of a free write) and then to take their thoughts on the road with them as they left school and see how lived experience shaped them. Our actual discussion will be tomorrow.

Here is what is interesting–I offered the question and they wrote furiously–some filling pages in their notebooks, others thoughtfully choosing words and crafting ideas with care. I had to call their writing to a pausing point in the last seconds of class, yet even then, some continued to write. It was apparently one of those times where my hope for a question was met with a mirror image in reality.

So, what was the question that stirred them?

It was quite simply this:

What are the implications of the call to “love your neighbor” in this modern world we live in?

I have no idea what they will share, but here’s the thing. Say what you will about teenagers, the fact that they immediately knew what they needed to convey about this question shows us not only a great deal about the world we live in, but also their awareness of their experience within it. I honestly cannot wait for these discussions tomorrow. I imagine their thoughts will be fulfilling, challenging, provocative, honest, and full of heart (and knowing  my kiddos, some intense philosophical assertions as well).

I also expect that more questions will arise. And we will chase those too.

(Day Eight–this one was tough–National Championship viewing on Monday makes for a sleepy Tuesday. I struggled all day to make complete sentences just in conversation and the sentences in this blog ended up way too long…sorry about that…but the writing is done! And I am proud of that:) )

exchange

“Poems change landscapes rather than photograph them”

Jericho Brown 

I woke up yesterday morning absolutely elated about the prospect of returning to school. You might question this stance. I get that. After all, what sort of individual finds excitement in exchanging dreamy leisurely vacation days for weighty exhausting workdays? Maybe I should have felt grumpy about having to wake up early and wear real clothes and makeup, but this time, I simply couldn’t.

What I knew as I awoke that morning was that with the opening of the second semester also came the start of my semester long Poetry elective. This is a class that is altogether indulgent on my part. It is not a course that is steeped in technicality and terminology. It is not a course overwhelmed by analysis and singular right answers. I could teach that class, and kids would learn plenty, but they would miss the point.

My poetry class is more of an invitation, an entry point if you will.

I simply want my kids to fall in love with poetry. I want them to find themselves in poet’s lines and then to be willing to then put themselves on the page. In reading poetry, I want them to better understand the people of this world whose experiences differs from theirs–to recognize that just because someone else’s truth is different from their own, doesn’t make either truth wrong. It just makes them different–and we can respect difference. We can learn from difference and the brevity of poetry makes us more amenable to remembering that. I want them to witness, to understand what an arrangement of words can create not simply on a page, but within our spirit, within our minds, within our core-and to know that their words can do that for other people too. I want them to not just know but to feel that they are in fact poets. Will each of them be published? Probably not–half of them didn’t even sign up for the class intentionally…they just “lucked into” it:) Does that mean they aren’t poets? Not in my opinion. They will do the hard work, write themselves into the identity, and it will linger with them even after they leave my space.

How can I predict this lasting identity with certainty? Well, I suppose I cannot.

Except, for this.

As I was leaving work this evening after a ridiculously long day, I received a text from a former student. They wrote, “Decided I’m going to start writing every day and get back to working on my craft. Here’s a poem I wrote today, still not polished off but I wanted to share it with you:)” Okay, so a couple of things–First, these are the moments that make the long days worth the effort. Second, they attached screenshots of a draft of an incredible poem–one that wasn’t assigned or worth points, but was valued far more than any grade. There was a later text that included this as well, “…I don’t know, it felt good to write it out…”

What a lot of people are missing is that when we stick solely to the form and function …what we miss when we focus only on essays of analysis and everyone in the room reading the same teacher selected poem at the same time…what we lose when we introduce poetry with apology and corroborate the learned student philosophy that poetry is worthless or too complex is this opportunity for a kid to grow up and still be able to express themselves poetically if for no other reason than to get what is inside, out. That is a gift worth more than any A on any report card. When we allow ourselves (and our students) to find the poetry that moves us, to write about what matters to us, to discover our own poetic voice, our vision of this world is intensified and enriched. When we become poets and think poetically we have this constant unfailing gift of expression that can be wielded to heal, to sort through, to rejoice, to thank, to revel in the fact that when all else fails, words and our ability to arrange them will not.

What I knew as I awoke yesterday morning was that while some of my students might come to me not so sure about poetry, every single one of them would leave with the gift of it. What I knew was that my job this semester consisted of nothing more than opening the door and shepherding them through it…supporting them as they uncover their voices and choices…pointing out their triumphs and helping to clarify their confusion.

What I knew was that this semester would bring gifts to us all, and I could not wait to begin.

(Day Two of the King Cake writing challenge 2020–it’s nice when inspiration comes via text:) )

lenses

It’s that time of year where nostalgia for moments past peaks and where video montages prevail in abundance–tugging at our sentimentality for days gone by and seeding lofty resolutions for days to come. I say this having recently wiped misty tears from my eyes as a result of one of these carefully crafted caravans of visual memorabilia. It is important to note, that my tearful reaction is not a novelty–I am easily moved…children singing, for example, is sure to dampen my cheeks as does the privilege of seeing anyone (and I really mean anyone in the most liberal sense) live into the fullest possibility of some element of their potential as a human. So, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that this most recent bit of sap was in reaction to a collection of sports highlights from this past decade shown on ESPN. Look, I’ll be honest, every time I see Megan Rapinoe pose, I’m going to be kind of overwhelmed by all the emotion and pride that image stirs up. Her strength and her perseverance and her unwillingness to be anything other than herself, like her or not, is an inspiration to me and to countless others. And I will be moved every time I hear Joe Burrow’s Heisman speech or see that photo of him in his “Burreaux” jersey. And not simply because I am a Tiger fan or a Louisianian, but also because of his undying determination, leadership, gutsy hard work and his consideration of those who didn’t even know he saw their hunger–he didn’t just earn awards, he earned respect.

But tonight, as I watched clip after clip of athletes as they harnessed their God-given talents after countless hours of hard work that required sacrifice and stamina (even and especially when that effort felt futile) achieve the success they had only previously dreamed of, I found myself taken in by their emotion.

And I realized something else.

We don’t need montages of strangers at the pinnacle of their careers to draw us toward the flicker of humanity’s potential; we simply need to pay attention in the small everyday moments of victory. As a teacher, those moments overflow if I allow myself to recognize them for what they are. Whether it is the kid who finally realizes they are a writer after years of being told (both outright and unintentionally) otherwise or the student overwhelmed with anxiety who struggles just to get to school yet finds a way to survive a whole day of classes, the young people I work with are achieving victories every single solitary day. And those victories deserve to be celebrated, those kids deserve to feel seen in their moment of exceeding what they felt was possible. Because just maybe those tiny moments of feeling seen and lifted up will enable them to harness the determination and drive it takes to step forward into spheres of greater challenge. Maybe when we speak our witness of the truth of a child, we help to imbue them with the confidence they need to step out of their comfort and into that sketchy place that will not only usher them toward growth, but potentially also allow them to bring their goodness to the world.

And here’s the thing, if that is true in school, it is true in the world. If we just looked for the good in others; if we took the time to appreciate their small moments of victory (which might be huge to them but harder for us to see), we wouldn’t need a highlight reel to remind us of the human capacity for achievement. We would be struck by it everyday.

This endeavor requires a new lens…one that isn’t scratched by cynicism or selfishness…one that is gauged to more effectively see the truth behind the facade, the struggle behind the show. It requires the effort of putting that lens up to our vision even when it is easier to sink into judgement (and let’s face it, it’s sort of always easier to go there). It requires us to be for others all that we hope they will be for us…even when it is seemingly a debt that goes unpaid. It requires an extension of grace even when retribution seems simpler. It requires us to love our neighbors…all of them…even the ones who don’t make that call so easy to answer (and let’s face it, when we get beyond our own hubris, it becomes far more apparent that for someone else in this world, we are that difficult to love person…).

I’m pretty sure all of our hearts are at stake in this one. I’m also pretty sure that the outcome will be worth the effort.

 

 

 

Revive

In the last few weeks, I’ve allowed myself to become wildly overwhelmed–in part by the stress of running a school but moreso by something a bit elusive. What began as a low rumble of productive internal doubt, soon became a hurricane of hesitation–of blinding uncertainty and insecurity. A little self doubt typically keeps me in check, so I permit its presence. Questioning my decisions before they are final both at school and at home just seems to reflect careful reasoning. And this works.

Most of the time.

Trouble stirred recently because at some point even with this very self-aware process, I spiraled and before I could recognize what was happening, I was deep–really deep. I’m guessing this place is familiar to many. It’s the place where the refrain “you’re not good enough” echoes from the far reaches until it is all you can hear. It’s the place where every turn seems to drive deeper into the wilderness of withering confidence. It’s the place of helplessness, yet at the same time you will swear you are doing everything you can to help yourself. It’s the place where wallowing becomes the way instead of the won’t.

And you don’t even sense your citizenship to this place–that’s the insidious part. There was no intentional journey or paperwork to fill out, you just weren’t paying attention. It feels like “this is what life has become.” People can reassure you, but you’re so deep that it doesn’t resonate…they are just words without weight…the impact despite the intent.

Yet the words linger. Reminders of what you once knew yourself to be.

Funny story about this…one of my better skills is helping people (kids mostly) recognize when they’ve reached this destination and helping to support them as they unwind the spiral of negative self-talk…helping them harness the buoyancy of their spirit. Yet, somehow it seems, and not surprisingly really, I am pretty abysmal at helping myself in the same way. Goodness, even Dante needed Virgil to get through Hell and Purgatory. I needed another voice…a guide.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Somewhere around a week ago, my youngest son shared some memoir work he had composed in ELA. In this collection of pages was a half sheet of revision notes. On this page at some point he misspelled the word “Revise” and he wrote:

“Revive”

And I thought, I should help him see his mistake. And then I thought, wait a second, revive is a perfect word because isn’t that what revision does in the first place–it revives the work.

And then, because I’m an English teacher, I thought of Eliot’s Prufrock and his “visions and revisions” and how the indecision of it all paralyzed his entirety.

And then, I realized what I was doing wrong. A light came on, my vision was restored and I knew what needed to be done. It was time to revise my thinking and my acting in a way that would revive my spirit and in doing so renew my purpose. This wasn’t about changing other people. This was about the work I needed to do for myself. You know, the work we never want to take the time to do…because it is so much easier to make our inner mess someone else’s fault…that work.

I had to realize and own yet again that I cannot control the choices my students make, though I can guide them. I cannot control everything that will happen in the school day despite planning for it. I cannot control every action of every being and while I can try to control things in my house, inevitably, it is still going to be sort of a disorganized mess and my kids will still talk back to me from time to time. None of these things are necessarily failures on my part (okay, maybe the messy house, but that is a lifelong struggle and my husband knew this when he married me!), but I had been taking sole credit for too much that wasn’t really completely mine in the first place. I needed to unburden myself from this weight but had no idea how to do that in the midst of the busy-ness of life.

But to revise is to step away from your work so that you can return refreshed and ready to breathe new life into it–to revive it.

~~~~~~~~~~~

IMG_4653.jpeg

My step away was booked months ago before I even knew I would need it. It involved leaving both my school and my family with more going on than I should have left behind in order to attend NCTE. I wan’t sure I should go. I nearly canceled several times in the weeks leading up to my departure.  I felt selfish. While I knew this conference and the people here would remind me of my “teacher/administrator why”, I would be leaving behind a lot of people who rely on me to be there for them.

Except, I hadn’t really been there for them because I was a bit lost in my own stuff. This trip would not be selfish. This trip would restore me to the people I know and love. This trip would center my focus and energize me to move forward. This trip would give me time to reflect and to be still as well as time to interact and be social. This trip presented a shift in my physical location but also stood to present a shift in my mental location as well.

I had to go. Here’s why…

as the plane

lifted above the clouds—

weightless—free,

visions of magnificence, of blessing

struck awe

 

sunsets are the stuff of the everyday—

skyscapes from the ground,

majesty beyond humanity’s ability—

a gift—a reminder

all we have, all we don’t deserve

 

as the plane

lifted above the clouds,

a new perspective dawned

at dusk—unusual timing—yet not;

a sunset from a new angle

glowing through the grey

 

inhale, exhale

—release—

sparks of revival glow in those clouds

igniting the path

to myself

my truth

my life.

turn around

This is a blog of two pictures and a simple reminder.

So, there I was, waiting in the car for my oldest to finish up at cross country. I sort of dread these evening cross country practices because they mean leaving school after a long day, only to return shortly thereafter. It means, I arrive at school just after the sun comes up and I leave just after the sun goes down…it’s not a short day. So, there I was, sitting in the car while it was getting darker trying to stay awake and slowly coming to understand how it was that my dad always fell asleep waiting for me to be done with whatever activity he was picking me up from. Honestly, if I didn’t work at the school, a nap in the car would’ve been a pretty brilliant use of my time (a picture of the principal sleeping in her car in the parking lot spreading through SnapChat stories isn’t worth the extra sleep…for real).

Regardless, I was staring at a darkening sky and thinking of everything I had to do and it was weighing me down.

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I was spending my time as any weary mom might…wallowing in thoughts of cooking dinner and getting kids ready for bed and writing this blog and wanting to just crawl into my own bed instead. I wasn’t doing much to rekindle my energy…just cycling from sleepy to sleepier.  In the midst of this not so proud moment, I received a text from my husband who had just finished coaching my youngest at soccer practice. My son had asked him to send me a picture of the sky because he knew I would love it…he was right.

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It was in that moment I realized that beauty and light were still present…all I had to do was turn around. Instead of gazing straight ahead into the darkness, if I simply turned around and looked behind my car, I could see these last warm tinges of the day’s glow before they settled in for the night. If I only turned around, I could witness the reminder of all that I have to be grateful for. If I just turned around, revival awaited. This action would take energy, sure. It would also require a little faith that I wouldn’t have missed the moment…faith there would still be light to be shared…faith I wouldn’t just be disappointed.

So many moments in life require this energy, this faith. So many moments feel easier if we just stay in our lane heading listlessly into the dark skies craving sleep instead of experience. So many moments feel too overwhelming to make the effort. So many moments distract us from the awareness that the light is waiting for us to find it. So many moments require someone else to remind us that the there is still warmth and beauty in the world.

As fortunate as I am that my son was that reminder for me tonight, he also helped me to remember that I need to be this reminder for others as well. He didn’t make me turn around. He didn’t badger me or try futilely to revive my mood. He didn’t make any empty promises that everything would be okay, as we are so prone to doing when we don’t know what else to say to someone lost in the dark. He didn’t even know I was sulking in the car all those miles away. He just knew I would love that picture and so he found a way to send it my way. He was mindful; he was present.

Just as we all should be. Mindful. Present.

(this poem came to mind while I wrote this entry… “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)

creativity exonerated

“Hope is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”

Jericho Brown, The Kenyon Review Conversations

“Let the world we dream about be the world we live in now.”

from “Livin’ It Up On Top”, Hadestown

So, it was a long day. Friday shouldn’t make you earn the weekend the way this day demanded I dig in and persevere. My attitude shift from Monday that brought lightness of being and joy to much of my week wavered under the weight of the stress. I found myself losing my breath again, feeling exhausted.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, the two quotes above flitted about my thoughts lending hope and injecting energy.

Being a creative person and seeing possibilities when other, sometimes more practical, people mostly see roadblocks…being a creative person driven by the hope and the belief that more often than we realize, the impossible can be imbued with the spark of life…can lead to a bit of a frustrating existence. The litany of naysaying often easily exceeds the necessary check of optimistic idealism. The constant defense of what goodness will come when we just try the new seemingly unattainable possibility is exhausting. But the hope that is intertwined with this creativity, even and especially when called into question, rejuvenates and restores the spirit so that intensity of vision remains in focus.

As frustrating as my optimistic creativity can be for those that have to work and live with me, it instills in me the hope that drives me forward…that drives progress at my school and in my home forward. It makes me who I am and is the catalyst of any goodness I might be able to offer this world. I refuse to apologize for it any more in the way I used to feel compelled to. And honestly, on a day like today that is filled with demanding stressors, it is this creative hope-filled vitality that impels me forward and that allows me to continue dreaming. (It also doesn’t hurt that today is Friday…)

~hope~

The college admissions process, if I am being honest, is a destructive force in the life of high school students (I have other language for this but it’s not quite appropriate here). The urgency for students to make the very best grades in only the most challenging courses available hijacks their high school careers, and in many cases their quality of life and mental health. Students feel burdened to focus solely on a journey toward acceptance into college rather than on a course of self discovery; they are trained before they ever venture through the doors of high school that earning the highest grades supersedes learning for the sake of learning; high school becomes a means to an end rather than a place to dive in and truly engage in exploring curiosity. Teachers work hard to battle against this disruption in the educational lives of our kids, one that owns the potential to strip the true value of learning from their high school experience.

As a high school English teacher and principal, I could express concern for days on this subject. And not because my students are delicate flowers who can’t face the challenge–quite honestly, they persevere through it in a way most adults could not manage. My concern comes from the knowledge of what their high school careers could look like and the distorted version they are forced to live.

But this position is not the point of this blog…this is the “positivity project” after all! And the title of this blog is “hope”…so where is the hope, you are wondering? It is with the kids. They are always the hope.

Today, I was working with a senior on her college essay–guiding her through the process of maintaining her voice while revealing the best of herself. It was a delightful conversation–one that allowed her to maintain total control of her words and thoughts so that her essay absolutely represented her. She chose to write about a problem she would like to solve; she chose to write about civil discourse. Okay, so it is a given that anyone choosing the challenge of modeling civil discourse in our divisive and often vitriolic world and anyone willing to encourage others to participate has my attention. But the fact that this 18 year old is so driven by the import of this challenge delivers hope to my heart and reminds me why we do the hard work. It is important to note at this point that civil discourse is a sincere concern of hers and not just some concoction of desperation for admission to college. And her words reveal that:

Before I didn’t grasp how allowing vulnerability and discomfort into a conversation could solve the problem at hand. I didn’t realize that they were valuable and essential things I should embrace. I didn’t realize that what made me uneasy was the fundamental element that makes conversation helpful.”

Hope.

Because if everyone understood this and lived into it, the world would be a far more unified place to exist–people would live in community rather than in polarity. Rather than seeking means to always be in the right, we would spend more time listening, considering, understanding–even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it means sharing in an honest and meaningful way. We would come to conversations in love rather than hate. We would be better humans.

Hope.

Because she will make this world a better place. Because she already has. Because if we listen carefully, this legion of teens we are torturing with a grueling college admissions process will show us the way. They are already leading us in the right direction. Let’s give them the credit they deserve, swallow our pride, listen and act on their guidance.

Hope.

In her words, “ I know that if society wants to reach true productivity there has to be a constant, earnest conversation. No loopholes..can be tolerated so those engaged are dedicated to working for the common good and not their personal interests. 

I don’t know where I will end up after college or what profession I’ll venture into because I am unsure about a great deal of things. However…I recognize that I have a passion and a gift for encouraging other people to listen and for exemplifying how to discuss respectfully, and I have no intention of wasting it.”

 

 

 

frivolity’s function

“Hey Mrs. Clark! We have a question for you!”

It was the very beginning of class. I smiled. I have taught these kids for nearly three years now and I had the sneaking suspicion that this question would have nothing to do with the text we had been working with. But I also knew that it would probably evoke a good bit of laughter…which is always welcome. School days are too long to reject or deny a break from the monotony of routine.

So what was this question that they were so anxious to ask?

“Okay, we’ve been debating this all day and we need more input. Are you ready?”

One can never be ready in these moments.

“Is a pop-tart actually a form of ravioli?”

Just a little bit of background. This is my AP Literature class. Seniors…who will populate some of the best universities in this country next year. Their schedules are intense because college admissions is intense. Their days are full of AP and honors courses; their evenings are full of homework, part time jobs, extra-curriculars and other responsibilities. And still this hotly debated topic was the one thing they couldn’t wait to share. (And also, don’t lie–you know you are having this argument in your own head right now…for the record, I said no…pastry not pasta was my criterion…we are still arguing…).

It would’ve been easy to be frustrated in this moment of distraction from our purpose. It would have been simple to shut down the question and admonish the frivolity…to drone on about wasted class time and how much we have to do. I could have been offended or self-conscious that our coursework wasn’t entertaining enough. I could have assumed that my agenda was more important.

Except, these kids are the reason I am in that room…they are the reason I teach. Their personalities lend levity and dimension to my days. Moments like this fill my classroom with joy and delight and wonder. Allowing an off-topic debate such as this humanizes my role as the teacher (and principal) and proves that I respect my students for who they are, where they are in this life.

I spend the hours prior to this class sifting through administrative duties…tasks I never imagined would be my responsibility because, honestly, I never wanted to be a principal. Not ever. This particular school and its particular quirkiness drove me to the madness of applying for the position. I couldn’t stand the thought of some new person, an intruder of sorts (dramatic, I know, but also true), coming in and potentially changing the heart of this place. So here I am. Answering a gazillion emails, filling out paperwork, creating and enforcing rules, moving in and out of endless meetings. It is exhausting. These kids make every bit of it worth it.

Every

single

day.

So yes, I entertain debates of this nature (you should know that “Is a hot dog a sandwich or a taco?” came up as well…). Because when it comes down to it, we will always make time for reading and writing…there will still be conversations about literary analysis and how to write a good beginning rather than an intro that reflects some geometrical shape…we will always make time to read the poetry that moves our souls…there will still be writers notebooks to create space for wordplay. But none of this work succeeds–none of it means anything to them–if I don’t also make space for allowing my kids to express themselves, if I don’t care about hearing their voices.

We didn’t spend a ton of time in this debate (which, by the way, their arguments were impressively substantiated). But everyday since, I have found myself smiling at the nonsense of it. I have found myself grateful for my kids and for this job that gives me access to moments like this. I have found myself thinking that anyone who doesn’t have the privilege of teaching for a living is missing out. I have found myself grateful that I work in a place that understands that kids (and teachers) just need to be who they are.

Even and especially when that means we pause for a moment and indulge in a bit of silliness.

(Positivity Project day 2)

 

For poetry’s sake

So, I had this dream last night…hang in there with me…it is a little fuzzy as remembered dreams tend to be. I was seated at some event with some of my favorite authors (I can’t recall who precisely; I didn’t really see them, I just knew they were there). We were in conversation and it was as though I belonged there…as though I was an equal. Then, suddenly the person seated just a few chairs down from me turns and shares details about a poetry anthology that is about to be released.

It was Maya Angelou.

In my dream, this person speaking directly to me, was Maya Angelou. I immediately, without intimidation or reticence and as though I were speaking to a friend, replied with enthusiasm for this text and began my sad story about how I have all these things to say about poetry and no voice or platform to share them more effectively. And this is where I know my sub-conscious was really trying to nudge me…Ms. Angelou looks me directly in the eyes and says, “You have a voice. You are just choosing to put other things first. Free your heart, the words will follow. Give them the time they deserve.”  I’m certain if this had truly been Maya Angelou, she would have expressed this far more profoundly, however, she was limited by the confines of my sleepy brain. Regardless, this truth-baring reprimand was enough to get me writing again…and the words below are my heart set free (well, when it comes to poetry anyway…especially the necessity of poetry in the lives of our students…).

What feels like a million years ago now when I was still young and smart, I spent my last two years of undergrad researching and composing my honors thesis on Dante’s Divine Comedy. This project was a passion of mine–I began taking Italian so I could read the poem in the original language…I read Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso each more than once…I read texts that inspired the allusions within Dante’s work…I read criticism…I wrote about all of this and then wrote some more and some more after that. It fueled my brain and felt like the most intriguing puzzle ever set before me.

When I finally narrowed my focus, I was surprised that I landed in the beauty of Paradiso rather than the glorious and righteously (and maybe vindictively) bestowed agony of Inferno. I never saw that coming, the Inferno always seemed far more deliciously awful and enjoyable. But somewhere along the way I discovered a pattern in one of the cantos of the Paradiso and my brain said, “Yes, thank you! We will park ourselves here and think some more.”

Honestly, as nerdy as this will sound, working through this text and the sometimes terror…sometimes frustration…sometimes exuberance of writing about it and about my findings was legitimately fun and some of the most gratifying work I have done in my life.

With all of that in mind…I bring you to the day of my defense. One of my favorite humanities/comparative lit professors had offered to be one of my readers, and I honestly couldn’t wait to hear the praise and accolades he would lavish. And while there was some of that, there was also something else…something that in all these 20 or so years, I have never forgotten. With a look of true disappointment, he revealed that while my academic work was excellent and my dissection of the poem important, I had lost the beauty of the words along the way…that I had completely sacrificed the magnificence of the aesthetic created by the poet in order to deconstruct the work for deeper understanding. I mean, look, my defenses went way up because the aesthetic wasn’t my focus or my purpose. But the fact that the sting of that statement still lingers, points me toward the fact that there was enough truth in what he observed that he was right.

Which brings me to the point of this first blog in a new series of blogs (well, I’m hoping it becomes a series of blogs anyway!). I’ve been advocating for years that the reason students (high school students especially) need to be studying poetry in the classroom is because it will impact them as writers in deep and meaningful ways. I know this to be true and so do so many other teachers I admire. Poetry, in its brevity and precision, offers a microcosm of what happens in prose–each word, each piece of punctuation, a deliberate and intentional act on the page–each poem, approachable for study even when it will take work to navigate because the page isn’t so overwhelmingly full.

This (in greater detail) has been my plea for the last 5 years:

Teach the poetry and your young writers will better their craft.

Something in this poetic passion project always felt hollow, false, lacking. I could never put my finger on it until the other day when I woke up from my Maya Angelou dream a little unnerved and suddenly thinking about my thesis defense. And then a more complete truth settled upon me.

In all of my research and in all of my speaking and writing on this subject, I have been too focused on the academic outcome and less focused on the human need for and the value of the aesthetic, of the emotion, of the truths contained in the beauty (albeit sometimes raw rather than rapturous) of poetry…the value of students finding themselves in a poem, finding comfort, finding joy…the value of students finding the truths of others in these brief texts…the value of the outlet of poetic composition when a student is anxious, overwhelmed, in crisis, happy, in love (and yep, teenage love counts you guys–perception is reality, so guess what…that perceived love is their reality)…

In all of my efforts to feel and sound credible, I lost sight of sharing the importance of the empathic weight of poetry and what that delivers to the human beings in our classrooms, seated before us. I ignored the truth that sometimes what we read–especially poetry–doesn’t have to be an academic pursuit, rather it can be a soulful one, a healing one, a rejuvenating one, an exploratory one–one that isn’t followed by analysis and essay, rather causes us to look carefully inward. And just because we have demands placed on us as teachers that sometimes restrict what it is that we do in our classrooms and how we do it, does not mean we cannot make the space for poetry and for allowing our students to be human beings rather than simply learning machines…for allowing them to be frail and vulnerable and to interact with a text that will foster connection and allow them to feel seen, heard, understood…for granting them time to appreciate the beauty of the words and not have to peel back layers in search of some purified explication. After all, if we are truly teaching the whole child and respecting them as individuals who deserve to be seen, doesn’t all of this fit…doesn’t all of this become required curriculum?

In the coming days and weeks, this blog will be filled with stories and moments and ideas that validate the use of poetry in the high school classroom (okay, and really in all of our lives…just saying…) and not for any other purpose than allowing our kids to feel and to wade into and to soak up the beauty of the language, its function, its artistry, its ability–for in allowing them to do that, we will empower them to harness their own emotion, to develop their own voice, to know who they are and to speak their own truths. In a world where the college admissions process has become debilitating and where our students often feel othered, unheard and ignored, how can we discount poetry when it can work against the injustices they feel and face?