I decided one morning around 5:30, as the caffeine from my first cup of coffee coursed through my soul, that the thing to do was create a self-study curriculum for myself on education and teaching.
“I’ll read everything I can,” I told Jesse as he shuffled towards the teapot and opened the top with a clang. “I’ll create a scrapbook, as I did in college, with all I’ve learned and all my dreams for a classroom.”
“Uh, huh,” Jesse mumbled. He filled the teapot from a filtered faucet he installed. It was the first thing he did to our home when we moved in.
I poured myself another cup of coffee.
“This way,” I told him, “I’ll know how I think and feel and hopefully I won’t just jump into a job that isn’t a good fit.”
In the morning Jesse wears a sweatshirt with the hood up, so it was hard to tell if he was listening or still asleep, smiling, or rolling his eyes. I am my most effervescent in the morning. After about 11, I turn into Emily Dickinson. Before then? I am a force to be reckoned with.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said, pouring a splash of milk on the Irish Breakfast teabag he’d placed in his mug, then leaning on the kitchen counter, facing me and smiling.
I smiled back and sauntered proudly out of the kitchen and back upstairs to my writing desk, satisfied and energized.
And then, I picked up Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry. Perhaps this book seems like a strange choice for a study on teaching and education, but it was Megan’s subtitle that drew me to the book: “How To Keep, Save & Make Your Life With Poems.”
Here’s why: I left teaching in the middle of a school year — a fact that will forever haunt me. One morning a few weeks before I left, I was unlocking my classroom door for the day when another teacher stopped by to say hello.
“Heard you’re leaving,” she said.
I put my head down and mumbled a confirmation.
She didn’t ask why, but she didn’t move on either, so I fumbled with my keys and opened my bag to pretend to look for something, and when she still said nothing, I took a deep and shaky breath (back then I was always either crying or on the verge of crying) and let out a sigh, looking toward my classroom.
I was days from leaving, but I still had a stanza from Marjorie Maddox’s poem “On Defining Education” taped to my door: “I’m not talking about who you should be / but are. Let’s start with the essence of the seed / and see what sprouts from there.”
It was a poem that led me, excitedly, to accept the job, and these specific lines would be my manifesto. Maddox’s words would be the first to decorate my classroom, my greeting to sixth-graders each day, I thought. Not a fist bump, not a high five, not a handshake. Poetry.
I turned back to my colleague and gave her the only explanation I could offer. “There’s no poetry in what I do anymore,” I told her.
She didn’t seem satisfied (neither was I — my statement was one of grief), but she seemed to understand. She patted me on the shoulder, nodded, and walked down the hallway.
The morning I held Megan’s book, I wondered, What would my classroom look like if I set it up around her subtitle? What would happen to my students if every day I planned lessons aimed at keeping, saving, and making their lives with poetry?
I hesitate to use the word I’m about to use because L.L. Barkat will make me follow through, but these questions felt like a dare. A dare to imagine my dream classroom, my dream curriculum. A dare to name what it is that makes me uncomfortable about education and a dare to accept that instead of feeling miserable about it. Pondering a life of poetry felt like a dare to wonder and wander. It felt like a dare for exploration and adventure. I might’ve torn Maddox’s words off my classroom door the day I left, but her poetry was not torn from me.
And so I turned the page.
After the poem “New Year’s” by Dana Gioia, Megan writes, “There is no feeling more grand than leaving a snowshoe print in a field of pristine snow.” I underlined that sentence and then asked a question in the margin: “Make this into a poem?” I thought of other grand feelings that leave footprints: the knife marks on our cutting board from slicing apples and onions and carrots. The full flavor of my turmeric-ginger tea when I have the patience to let it steep in my mug. The hollow thunk sound a fresh loaf of bread makes when I use my finger and thumb to give it a flick to check to see if it’s done, just like my mom showed me.
I thought of sharing this with my pretend students and having them write their own lists of grand feelings. Maybe we’d make footprints in the snow, or if it wasn’t snowing, maybe we’d read poetry and stories about snow and the snow season. We would study snowflakes and the water cycle, learning that it all goes in a circle. It all gets used again and again in different forms, and how is knowing this not poetry?
I read Stuart Kestenbaum’s “Prayer for Joy” and Megan asked, “More importantly, what shall we do with the heavy word joy?” Again, I wrote in the margin: “Another poem beginning?” Continuing in the smallest script I could manage, I gave it a shot:
What do we do with the tree
outside our bedroom windows?
The one that turns white in spring?
And butter yellow in the fall?
What do I do when
Jesse pulls the cast iron skillet from the cupboard
to make us pancakes on Halloween morning?
What about the stranger
stopping me on my way to class
to look at a hummingbird?
He was delighted,
and I thought,
“OK, why not?”
And together, we leaned in
If I had my own class, how would I encourage my students to play with the heavy word joy? Maybe we would draw the word in block letters and fill it in with designs that symbolize joy. I’d have them divide a piece of paper in fifths, write “joy” at the top, and then write what joy feels, tastes, sounds, smells, and looks like. Then I’d have my students write a poem or a memory, or a short story without using the word at all.
“Poetry gives you an idea of what to do,” Megan writes, “or, at least the idea that something can be done. Poetry gives you the confidence to imagine action figures rescuing a dolphin trapped on an ancient version of Mars, with water. Or something even wilder.”
That’s what I meant when I said that dark morning that there’s no poetry in what I do anymore. There was nothing left to imagine. Even if action figures needed to rescue a dolphin trapped on Mars, the solution would’ve been turned into a 30-step lesson plan that had come from a standard, that had come from a question that would be on a test, and the entire thing would not need to be taught but drilled into students. Because the right answer is what matters, not the fact that we are sitting on Mars with a dolphin that needs our help, and that we might be superheroes.
I like books and essays and poetry that leave me feeling as though I am on the verge of something. I don’t know what that something is (and that’s part of the fun), but The Joy of Poetry did that for me. It is the most joyful kind of unsettling.
Until I know what’s next, I have written a line from Megan’s poem “There’s Sunshine Ahead” and taped it to my computers in the schools where I work: “She settles herself right in the middle of everything.”
It serves as a reminder for me to see the poetry in my days and to imagine what it is that can be done.
So that’s what I do now, in the library job that I have. I settle myself in the middle of everything. One morning, a week before Thanksgiving, I decided to teach Aileen Fisher’s poem All in a Word to the classes that come see me in the library. I showed them it’s an acrostic poem and led them in writing their own acrostic poems for the word “thanks.” When we got to the letter “n” a student suggested quietly, “nightfall,” and another student challenged, “What in the world is nightfall?”
I asked the class if they saw the last night’s sunset.
“Oh, yes,” they said, and they said it like they were inhaling the memory of the settling grays and dark blues upon the disappearing oranges and purples from the coming night startling them.
“That’s nightfall,” I told them. “It’s like when you get into bed, toss your blanket up, and let it coast gently down on you.”
“Let’s use nightfall,” they said, smiling. “Nightfall is something to be thankful for.”
For this week’s poetry prompt, choose a word you love and write an acrostic poem about it. Find directions here.
Here are some examples from kindergarten through second grade classes in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where I work.
T – to be together
H – hot weather and hot chocolate
A – apples
N – nails to put things together
K – kangaroos, and
S – sunshine!
T – turkey, and tans in the summer
H – Halloween pumpkins, and camels’ humps
A – apples, animals, the word “as,” and asking questions
N – nickels to spend
K – kites, and kittens
S – socks and shoes
T – turkey
H – happiness and time,
A – at home
N – nightfall
K – kind people and having knowledge
S – snakes and singing
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s one from Megan Willome we enjoyed:
Take an ordinary waterfall
Lay it sideways
over a limestone bed
When I brought you here after the floods
you leapt between boulders
Before I could yell, Don’t
you’d done it. There were no signs
no compass, no way to tell where we were
but you stepped as sure-footed
as the man today who helped his pit bull
down a slick space.
It was not until he strode away
that I saw his artificial leg
a veteran of foreign falls
his secrets safe
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher. I ended up an accountant instead, and after reading The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, I realize it’s probably a good thing, because I don’t have the gift that Callie Feyen has. She pulls meaning from even the smallest things and helps us relate something that can be hard to understand to situations and feelings in our own lives. It’s been a long time since I have read Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it very much when I did study it in school. But now I know how much I missed and I am looking forward to reading it with new eyes. If only we could all have had teachers like Callie, challenging us to see more and feel more!
—JJN Mama, Amazon reviewer