I met the principal at a barbecue cocktail party when I first moved to Oregon and I'm not sure how it came up, but I remember after some of us discussed what is art and deciding it's an experience rather than a thing, I mentioned that I liked poetry and writing it and showing up at open mikes once in a while. That's when she asked if I could or wanted to teach poetry to fifth graders, which was something I never considered doing, in part, because I don't consider myself an expert in teaching or writing poems or much else for that matter. But she talked me into it, saying that the kids would love to hear from a real poet. I said, "Sure, I'd love to do that," and then she asked for my phone number and email and I gave her my real ones because we had a mutual friend.
After talking to the principal a second time, I learned that the class was for kids who signed up for an extra-credit after-school elective and wanted to be there unless they were forced by their parents. It would begin next week and be on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the whole month. And just when I was feeling pretty good about things, I met Ms. Heinsohn, one of the fifth grade teachers who seemed skeptical about my credentials, which couldn't be qualified or quantified and, on paper, were nonexistent. I tried not to be intimidated when Ms. Heinsohn mentioned her sister was a novelist and so I said very little except that I probably wouldn't bore the students with iambic pentameters or limericks and that I assumed they could all read. She stared at me for a second with her cat-eye glasses, which kind of wigged me out and then she talked really fast. All I caught was that the group of kids I'd be teaching were eager to explore the world of creative writing. It was a good sign. As a poet, I'm really into signs and reading between the lines.
I'd be lucky if I could say something that would make sense to ten and eleven year-olds, resonate with them, make them curious about what I was trying to teach. I had zero expectations. I was fully prepared to see poems about furry puppies and professional wrestling and clouds like cotton. To hope they would be more curious and pluck words from midair, be uninhibited in such a way that they either reflect or bounce or deflect or uncover something that might move another person to sigh, laugh, get angry or feel glad-that's a lot to ask. I, personally, didn't think in those terms until after I left college.
It was clear when Ms. Heinsohn introduced me to the fifth graders for the first time that they could read and they liked to talk more than they liked to write, which in all my 23 years is like most everyone I've ever known. Nine girls and five boys sat around a long table in the library and, aside from all the girls looking three years older than the boys, it was pretty much how I imagined it. The library smelled like lunch pails and plastic.
Not sure why I noticed, but there weren't any blacks or Hispanics in the group. One was an Asian girl, though, and one had an alphabet soup last name I couldn't pronounce and one of the boys, Ira, reminded me of a childhood buddy who used to forge our school's hot-lunch tickets until I used one and got busted. He had ramrod posture and looked like he couldn't throw a baseball no matter how hard he tried. He was one of those.
It was obvious these kids' economic conditions were far superior than mine when I was their age. Actually, their economic condition was equal to or far superior than my present condition. I didn't really have a job. With the exception of a girl who sat in the back named Summer, they all had nice fleece and logos (and probably footwear too) and it dawned on me that these Portland kids could've been living anywhere, like in Indiana or something.
At first, we had trouble looking at each other and I decided to let them write their own poems without any suggestions or guidance just to see what they would do. They asked if they could write about Christmas, which was coming up. I said, please, no. But some wrote about Christmas, anyway. Some poems rhymed and several had exactly the same lines. "I have a dog" was a very popular one. I don't like dogs, so I had a terrible time offering any sort of encouragement. There was nothing personal in any of the poems, unless you count the habits of pets or descriptions of snow, which was always white. I couldn't tell if I was wasting time or if they were learning anything or what. If they couldn't get personal, I was hoping for at least one poet to rap about pomegranate seeds or someone's middle name or walking plants. Finally, I told them that anything I'd never heard before is good, which was when they demanded an example. I shared one of my more restrained and shorter rants:
I belong to the service of man
It walks all over me
I fight the binary world
I work, eat and drive
My Monopoly hotel is adrift
Some of them giggled. Ira raised his hand. "It's not a very happy poem, is it?"
"Well. I guess not. No. It's not really a happy poem, but it's not necessarily sad
either. It's more along the lines of what is."
"Mr. Mitchell, I have a question."
I really liked being called Mr. Mitchell. It was the girl with the name I couldn't
pronounce. "Go ahead."
"My mom said that poems should come from your heart."
"Your mom is right." I wanted to meet her mom. Based on such wise advice and the eyes and cheekbones of the ten- or eleven-year-old daughter, my guess was that Mom had it going. "Let's spend the rest of the class thinking about your next poem. This time, I want you to think about an object and jot down words only. Don't worry about rhyming or making any sense. I call this getting the words out." They all stared off somewhere except maybe Summer, so I added: "I want your next poem to surprise me with your observations. Look at something in a whole new way, okay?" A few nodded. "My favorite poems are the ones that are simple or somehow make the ordinary extraordinary."
It seemed like a good place to call it a day and I needed a cigarette, so I told them they could all go back to their homerooms and think about ways to describe the color of things, like a midnight blue sky, smoke-gray building, apple-green lake. I stuffed their papers in my pack and left. One of the students, whose name was Ethan, ran past telling me, as a matter of fact, that he'd seen some scary movies.
"Rated R," he said.
I didn't know what to say. I swung my pack around and fished for a cigarette as we stood watching wet asphalt.
"There's this one called Dr. Goodnight that gave me nightmares for like a week, but not quite a week."
"Some things kids just shouldn't see till they're old enough."
"It was really scary."
"What're you doing watching movies like that?"
"I don't know. It was good, though. This guy's arm-"
"I remember seeing some things when I was little that I probably shouldn't have." I was
ready to light up but decided to wait.
"What did you see?"
"I don't remember. All I know is that I watched a movie I shouldn't have and it gave me
the creeps. It gave me that feeling, like when you see old people screaming at each other
on the street."
"Oh. Yeah. I know what you mean." His imagination seemed to go swimming. He looked
toward a car crawl through the parking lot. I shoved my cigarette in my coat pocket.
"I'll see you next week," I said.
I thought to begin the next class by talking more about what poetry was. I said, for me, a poem is like a photograph that captures a moment that can't be recaptured again or any other way. "You know, like you visualize an isolated frame of time that excites you." They seemed to get it. "And it doesn't have to fit the normal idea of what pretty is."
"Like what?" someone said.
"Sometimes things that might be considered mundane or ugly can be really beautiful. Let's see. Here's an example. How about how little kids create make-believe or imaginary worlds by using garbage or an old sink or tire or a box? I think that could be a scene that could be very cool. Very beautiful, in fact." I looked at Ethan. He was sitting close to me like I was his buddy. I looked down at the piece of paper in front of him. He'd written "A Smoker's World of Smog."
Sean, a kid with blond hair in his face and wearing big tan cargo pants, stood up and pointed at me. There were band-aids covering the tips of his fingers as if to prevent him from eating them.
"My poem's called 'The World Changed.' It's about the bombing in New York." He peeled off a band-aid from his middle finger and started chewing. I suggested he read it to the class and the second he started, his tenor changed and began to squirm. He barely made it to the end.
But that's all it took. The kids seemed more eager than before and got talkative. Actually, they began to get a little out of control. Someone wanted to use a "freaky deaky" lyric from an N'Sync tune I knew nothing about and I talked about poetic license in a way that meant they could bend the rules. One boy asked for "poetic license" to punch his friend in the head.
I then read the poems they were holding out in front of me and sliding across the table where we sat. One had compared feeling good to Christmas ornaments, one had written about a stepbrother who drank all the orange juice in the house, one had written about his dad letting him sleep out on the balcony in the summer. I liked the balcony one and told my student to write more about the balcony. I loved the word balcony.
Then Sean pulled out a tooth he was keeping in his pocket and set it in the center of the table. The more disgust he got, the harder he laughed. It was a good snicker that involved his eyebrows. I heard words like "nasty," "gross," "disgusting," "sick." But then I couldn't keep from laughing so we all got silly. I think half the class wrote a poem about Sean's bicuspid. And Sean's poem went:
It's out on the table
It's sick and hard and not quite white
It's called names like nasty and sick and disgusting
Thank you toothy!
A girl named Taylor wrote a poem that showed a lot of effort, which is pretty much the only good thing about it. That and the fact that she knew how to spell maraschino cherries:
I look at the fridge
I look at the fridge from behind my mom's arm
I see my dad's pepporchino hot peppers
I see my mom's maraschino cherries
I see gallens of milk and gross cheeses in the little drawer
It's cold and crowded inside
But dark inside and colder when it shuts
Ira wrote about wearing leather pants and riding a motorcycle through the desert. There were red snakes curled up on the horizon and he crashed near a motel. The double-meaning of "crash" was particularly compelling for a fifth grader and I told him so, which he attributed to an uncle who once crashed his motorcycle but didn't get hurt. Between sound effects, I'll never know if he understood what I was talking about. And my friend Ethan wrote another poem about fruit without bones and erased something so fiercely it tore through the lined paper. I moved onto a poem where someone wrote down a purest desire: to have Destiny's Child perform at her birthday. Another compared Mandy Moore's eyes to faucets leaking grape juice, and it was accomplished in such a simple and moving way that I wanted to steal it for some of my own work: Her eyes were like faucets that leaked the juice of grapes.
We were getting somewhere. And there was quiet Summer, who didn't seem to fit in anywhere and wrote poems that seemed to come very easily because of how the words gathered, flowed and then stood there. I liked her, even though she kind of smelled like a crowded kitchen and her ears poked through greasy hair. Her shirt was tight and it said "Angel" on it and her bell-bottom pants were a little high, showing white socks. A few lines from one of her poems went:
I like good laughter
with a beginning
with mountains and valleys!
The poem was so good that I immediately stood up and asked Summer if she would read it out loud. She hesitated, her cheeks red, but then she read it. It didn't take long, but I looked at Ethan, Sean, Ira, Taylor-all the kids and it was beautiful. It was a nice time. I really liked that moment.