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.

~~~~~~~~~~~

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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…)

simplicity

My boys were singing in the car this morning on the way to school…loudly…and giggling the whole time. Effervescent joy permeated the air lending levity to the mundane.As they sang along with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I paused.

School mornings bring a bit of insanity and frustration to my house (I don’t think I am alone here). Getting lunches and backpacks ready…cajoling kids out of bed…debating the “I’m not hungry for breakfast” dilemma…fuel the potential for disagreement and discord. (I should mention at this point that I am an all out morning person in a house full of boys who possess no love for the hours before 8am–like I cannot wait until they are old enough to be caffeinated!) I work to preserve their moods but also my own because it is impossible to walk into your day feeling like it will be successful when you have spent the morning arguing over the location of socks and the necessity of  brushing away morning breath.

The singing without abandon in the car freed all of us from whatever morning drama had occurred. And it reminded me. It is truly the simple moments that populate my day with positivity. Without being present in those moments…noticing and feeling grateful for them…they would flicker and extinguish themselves into meaninglessness. Lacking focus on these smaller moments of delight would make it easier for negativity and pessimism to creep into my internal dialogue. When I’m consumed with the busy-ness of my life, when I let the less important things creep up the hierarchy of my priority list, I don’t take the time to notice and revel in these bits of positivity and in the people I love most…and my entire outlook changes.

The point of this positivity project blog series was to shift my gaze–to realign it. This morning’s pause offered proof that intentionality is certainly a crucial step to mindset and outlook. This morning’s pause set the tone for the day and realigned my perspective moving forward (so, when a student in my AP Lit class wondered if Marianne Dashwood would be a VSCO girl, it was easier to crack up in laughter, lean in and be grateful for the gift of my job and the even greater gift of my students).

Flashes of delight fill our days, but they don’t wait around too long hoping to be noticed. We have to be in the moment, expectant, hopeful, ready to grasp them in gratitude and to store them up like fireflies in a jar.

Things don’t have to be complicated to be worth our attention. Embracing simplicity can change everything…if we let it.

~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.”

 

 

 

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.

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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”)

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)

 

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.

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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.”