worthy

“…Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

from “Lost” by David Wagoner

For anyone who just needs to hear this today…or on any day to come…

a way in…Years ago, when my youngest was in first or second grade we hosted a pretty typical event–he brought a friend home from school with him to play for the afternoon. Except this kid was anything but typical! He very proudly explained to me that he was a survivalist with wilderness survival skills that other kids only saw on television. In the ten minute ride home, he regaled us with his knowledge proving the truth of his assertion. Let’s just say, when lost in the wilderness, he is who I want to be my guide!

~~~~~~~~

There are moments (days, weeks, months, years) in this life when the only way to justly explain the location of our mental health, of our well-being, of our clarity, is to name “the wilderness”. And the wilderness isn’t such a bad place to be…for a while. Exploration of this uncharted territory often offers deeper insight into who we have been, who we are and who we might become. The silence of our time there, at the start, feels contemplative and so we engage it rather than fear it.

Yet, inevitably, at some point, the wilderness exhausts us.

The silence becomes loneliness rather than solitude. The trees choke out the light and the path we thought we were on muddies itself and the weight of being lost settles in. In the darkness, we can no longer see ourselves or sense our purpose through the panic. In the darkness, we imagine the worst until it becomes our reality. In the darkness, doubt enters. In the darkness, we become uncertain of our capacity to maintain the strength it will take to exit the wilderness at all…we begin to doubt there is even a possible exit. Weakened, we succumb to sitting down, head hanging in distress.

And we forget.

We forget that the difficult moments in our lives are not the only moments in our lives.

We forget that we have been here before.

We forget that we survived…that we are battle-ready…that we are strong.

We forget that we are worth the struggle because sometimes it feels like the world has forgotten this too (even when it tries to tell us otherwise).

We forget what it is like to see clearly, without distortion, and to trust the well-meaning words of those who love us as truths–in the dark, it is hard to trust anything–and so in the dark, we forget we are loved.

And we hunger.

We hunger for a ray of light to break through the canopy and to shine upon us–a reminder that good has not been entirely eradicated from our existence.

We hunger for our hearts to feel in full rather than in shades.

We hunger for peace rather than pieces.

We hunger for someone else to do the work that we feel too empty to attempt.

We hunger for community, clarity, connection.

And all the while, we feel lost, unseen, misunderstood.

My only purpose in this blog is to say this…

I see you. I know you because I have been you. I’m here to shine that ray of light on whatever your situation is–to be your survivalist, your guide while you feel so invisible in the darkness. To let you know that you are not alone and that more than anything, you-just as you are-you are worth and worthy of the struggle. It won’t be easy; we know that. It will often feel impossible to orienteer your way through. Harness a strand of energy and strive to shine your own light again. It is still there, buried deep, waiting to be rediscovered.

But until then, I promise, there are others who will be beacons for you because they know that “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger…”

Sending love into the world today to all my fellow current and former wilderness dwellers. And also to my young survivalist who is battling his own metaphorical wilderness these days with courage and heart (truly survival skills)…an example to the rest of us for sure.

(Day Seven–not sure where this one came from but it felt necessary to honor the idea today. Also, every struggle is different and so if you need more than a pep-talk of a blog written by an optimist and not a professional, this is an excellent resource: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org and also 1-800-273-8255 )

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:) )

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.

redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

flowers and a poem

 

Today I bring you flowers and a poem. Tulips, above, and also, “Tulips” by A.E. Stallings.

Tomorrow, my students will consider both during notebook time. The tulips pictured above will be present to more fully illuminate the imagery that Stallings calls forth. Except, I want my students to witness more than wordplay and careful poetic craft this time. I want them to notice more than structure and form. I want them to do more than consider their personal impressions of these friendly flowers and to do more than write a few original lines in their presence.

All of these events will occur, but my purpose is larger than the classroom. This intentionality isn’t new for me. The kids have come to expect it.

My hope is for an epiphany that will walk out the door with them…something beyond reading and writing. Lofty? Sure. Impossible? Nope. I want to edge them closer to realizing how much more brilliant the world becomes when we pause to consider not only the words in a poem (though that helps), but also the simplicity of the the beauty that surrounds us everyday. I want them to employ their curiosity as a citizen of a world that is full of natural and created enchantments…to remember what it is like to be struck with wonder in the presence of such gifts.

I kind of think we could all use a little more of that in our lives which is why my phone contains a profusion of pictures of beautiful skies.

JFkd8ydXQyu3x7+PfOquOA

I am pretty sure my obsession with the sunset and cloud formations and rainbows and any other gift the sky chooses to bestow has exhausted my family (well, except for my youngest who has joined me in this endeavor). I am not deterred. The moments where I pause and take in this bit of grace extended to anyone willing to look up are moments of pure serenity; they are moments of poetry. And in these moments, there is an exchange that takes place that I am not sure how to put words to–a sort of gratitude, of silent adoration. Accepting this unearned gift, appreciating it, is so far removed from the cliched flowers we have all been instructed to stop and smell.

Look, the world is a busy place and we are killing ourselves to keep up, to do more, to be more. Don’t discount the fact that teenagers feel the same way. It is easy to lose ourselves in the rush; it is easy to lose our balance and our way. Stopping to see the world, to be of the world is grounding and at the same time allows us to transcend the drama of the day, the stress of the season. It is a reminder of all that we were created to be and to become…and sometimes that looks different than the life we are so furiously forming.

So tomorrow, we will pause and take in these beauties; we will enjoy A.E. Stallings’ poetry (always a gift); we will create in response. And maybe, they will walk out ready to do it all over again…on their own, for themselves.

(Day 3 “positivity project”)

inhale, exhale

Breath.

Invisible (well, for now anyway, it is still September and still, it seems, endlessly summer).

Invisible except in the rise and fall of the chest; except in the fatigued surrender of a sigh.

Invisible (for the healthy and the privileged) because it is easily ignored…a state of being, an elemental piece of existence. Mundane. Prosaic. A promise fulfilled that has become a promise expected and so the gratitude that might create awareness…

Dwindles.                   Subsides.                  Withers.

Invisible until we are gasping or labored or until the air around us runs rancid and it becomes hard to find clean air to fill us up to propel us forward to allow life

to swirl,                      to swell,                    to scintillate.

(metaphorical? yes–and–no)

Invisible until we are breathless and then it is all we see, all we feel–the ache, the burn resounds as our breath seems to have abandoned us and our quality of life (its abundance and intensity and brilliance) seems to have shifted and that shift, even if minuscule, stings.

~~~~~~~~~~

Breathless: I have been feeling breathless. I have unwittingly been attempting to fill my lungs with the air of stress that has become polluted by fumes of negativity and the entirety of my being has suffered as a result. I am exhausted, heavy, impatient. While exhaustion comes with parenting and “principalling” and teaching…heaviness and impatience are not familiar territory…and they frustrate me, creating even thinner air…leaving me jealous for any life, any day, any moment removed from the needs of others and the anxiety of not meeting them as effectively as I would like. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist (I am far too disorganized for that), but I don’t like letting people down either.

Triage: I needed to stop. To step back. To assess. What was missing? Why couldn’t I catch my breath and extract myself from this quicksand of worry? Why couldn’t I take back the narrative of positivity and rewrite the negativity…spin a new story? (I am, after all, the most annoyingly optimistic person I’ve ever known…ask my students, they will tell you) Why couldn’t I see a glimmer in this wilderness that seemed to be closing in around me?

Diagnosis: Writing. I wasn’t writing. (I mean, there was the lack of exercise too, but, you know…) I wasn’t granting myself permission to do one of the few things that make me feel most myself. I was using the time excuse again. But, seriously, chasing time was part of the reason I was so breathless and I wasn’t getting any closer to catching him. The rock was at the bottom of the hill again everyday and my Sisyphean struggle only seemed to intensify. So, I had to make a determination. I needed to challenge myself. I needed to fight my way out and that fight was going to have to include putting words on the page (digital or otherwise).

Prescribed: “the positivity project” (which I am sure is not some new brand of ingenuity–rather a remake) became my road map. Writing on this blog, 30 minutes a day, everyday, for as long as I can make myself, with the purpose of promoting positivity in each entry. It just seems that if I needed to be dug out of negativity, other people might benefit from reading something positive as well.

And maybe this way I will move forward in greater gratitude for the freedom of clean, easy air. A plentitude of it. Instead of searching for breath, I will just

Breathe.

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?

Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”

 

 

Light

Some days are armed with the power of transformation–arriving as ordinary as any other yet abounding with redemptive reminders that distract our gaze from its habitual focus. Some days extinguish the anguish of negativity, doubt, and worry that heavy the burden we shoulder and we walk into a new day renewed.

It has been a difficult few months and my boots have become weighty. I trudge from day to day (with a smile across my face, regardless)  knowing that this sensation, this looming shadow is ephemeral in nature. It is not the end. There will be more. There will be goodness. There is still love. But sometimes, it can be hard to keep my eyes above the waves. Sometimes, it feels easier just to give in to the shadow, to shroud the possibilities of positivity in the obscurity and confusion of doubt.

Today, though, there was a moment that changed all of that. Today was quite possibly the most perfect Jazz Fest day one could experience–the weather, as friendly and laid back as the people, welcomed us serenely as we strolled from stage to stage and from food stand to food stand. It was living into this day, however, rather than simply letting it happen to me that has reformed my vision, my heart, my head. Tonight, I am new. I am ready. I am grateful. Tomorrow will be met with fresh perspective.

This shift ignited with a moment I’ve witnessed countless times in my Jazz Fest experience…the moment when the Economy Hall Jazz tent erupts from seated passivity into the undulating zeal of a Second Line. They marched; they strutted; they sashayed; they paraded; they danced. Some with eyes closed, others with eyes wide; there were smiles stretched wide, yet some others with brows furrowed as music overwhelmed their being; some with open hands waving high, others clasping an umbrella or napkin or hat for flair. I’ve come to expect this scene–honestly, if it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t feel like Jazz Fest at all. Yet today, somehow it appeared differently to me.

Today, the people became the poem—each moving individual a unique line in a much larger piece, creating, contributing to the rhythm of the whole, breathing life into its body. Each moving individual providing some sort of punctuation to guide the reading–a full stop in mid motion for one, a quick pause for another and some, whose fluid movements never ceased, overflowed their line and rolled right to the next. Enjambment made physical. Yet, all together, they composed a singular poem…proverbial poetry in motion…and it was stunning.

As I watched this diverse group parade, I considered that on any given day these people would have absolutely no reason to stand next to each other let alone dance together. These people were so visibly varied that they might not have much in common (or at least they might assume so–we tend to lose sight of the commonality of humanity in the face of obvious differences), they might not agree or see eye to eye. They might argue. They might even fear what they don’t fully understand about each other and never strike up a conversation at all. They might come to dislike each other. They might never have danced with each other.

Sometimes words just complicate a simple existence, you know? We feel they are steering us toward truth when in fact they are simply rearranging facts to make us feel more comfortable with the “truths” we create. We feel we are using them wisely when in fact we might be using them divisively instead. We fail to employ them to build others up because it is simpler to destroy. We fail to ask questions and instead assert assumptions.

Today, in the presence of music, words weren’t necessary and the people moved with unity–uniquely dancing their own Second Line but doing so together…respecting differences, even admiring them and thriving as a result. Today, I saw what the world can be when we tear down language of “them” and “us” and instead, embrace the dialogue of “we” and “us”. Today, I saw a vision of the beauty that arises when we simply let those around us be themselves without judgement because we are too busy being ourselves to find fault. Today, I saw the possibility of living together harmoniously in a world that seems to fight with fervor against such a dream. Today, I saw hope and it overwhelmed my heart.

A single moment taken in, considered. Renewal granted. Replenishment.

Light in the darkness exists, if we simply take the time to seek it out.