So Long, Seniors: Twenty Years of Goodbyes

1222044_news__students_throw_mortarboards_-_july_14__-large_transth3h5bemkyhxfkdcxjgxv7c8h33cqspnmpifi37zqx8How impossible summer seemed when I was a kid. Climbing off the bus on the last day, heading down the lane towards our house, I couldn’t believe another year had ended and that what stretched before me were nights and nights and days and days of no school. That kind of freedom paralyzed me. Along our lane, laurel bloomed, deer flies swarmed, the brook ran, invisible beneath the skunk cabbage. In the pastures, cows found shade. In the fields, corn sprouted flimsy as new grass. Unlike my own children, I had no camps to attend, no friends with pools in which to float away my afternoons. We had no vacations planned; no jobs off the farm awaited me. I had a calf to get ready for fair season. My father would no doubt need someone to rake hay or finish milking so he could bale hay before the rain started.

But the list of things that would disappear for a few weeks: homework, early mornings, lunch table awkwardness, rote practice with long division and sentence diagramming — my God. What to do with the kind of joy I felt?

Today is the first day of summer vacation, too. Twenty years of teaching are behind me. I still look forward to summer, but not with the same joy, nor with the same paralysis, either. For someone who hated school as much as I did, the only surprise for me now is how much I love teaching. And how much, in so many ways, I dread June.

My friend Blake graduated from UNH the year before I did. During the final few weeks of his time there, we gathered, probably at a table beneath the low ceiling of the Catnip Pub, and Blake talked about what it felt like to be finishing up. “It’s not that I worry about seeing all of you,” he said. “I know we’ll keep in touch, but I’ll miss all those other people you pass on campus every day: the guy who lived across from you freshman year or the kids from the study groups we had for anatomy. I’ll miss the community, you know what I mean?” We said we did, but we didn’t. Not really. Not until it happened to us: that all those people who had been part of our world were suddenly in places that we were not. And for teachers, it happens at the end of every year.

We’ll come visit, they say, and they do. Always wonderful to see them (even if they’re off to South Africa and Prague and Barcelona for a year abroad or to Thailand for an internship or to China to teach poetry and I am exactly where they left me a few years before). But I no longer see them in context. They aren’t the students who gather in front of my desk during directed study anymore to show me pictures of the puppy they’re getting or to collaborate on a giant list entitled: Why Florida Brings the USA Down. They will never gather at the door just before the bell and show me how they intend to dance at the prom that night. We won’t meet to discuss “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” or to do Friday read-arounds from our weekly writing warm ups. They aren’t in the class that makes more allusions to pop culture than literature or the one that randomly brings in cakes to share. Those communities have dispersed permanently. They’ve joined other groups, and I have, too.

Oh sure, we re-connect on social media. That’s a modern day bonus. Some of my former students are in their 40’s now, but in their faces, I still catch a glimpse of the teenagers they used to be and I remember stepping in between one of them and a kid who arrived outside my classroom door to fight him about some long-forgotten girl, or getting my car rear-ended by one when we were out looking for prom venues and laughing so hard, I couldn’t get out to examine the (minor) damage, or hearing one of them tell me about the girl he’d asked to the prom who, all these years later, is his wife.

These memories are fun, but they are also the reason why I refuse to look at yearbooks: Because they seem to capture all the hope teenagers have that they are on the cusp of becoming who we were really meant to be, that life will only get better. That optimism, that naivete, is my undoing. I can’t explain it anymore than I can explain my aversion to the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps it’s that, at least in the case of yearbooks, I don’t like knowing what’s ahead when once upon a time, we were all filled with such promise.

Sometimes, I think I see my former students in the halls. A familiar posture. A similar profile. A hair color. A shirt I recognize. But no. They won’t be here again peering into their lockers or climbing the stairs to the science pod. They have moved on, exactly as we are all meant to do.

This year, my own daughter’s image might haunt the halls of her high school, a community she also left this June with the attendant pomp and circumstance. She is so excited for what’s ahead, so ready to be done with high school. And I? I’ll be here, of course, exactly where she left me except in a very different world.

Weekend Write In: The Real World is Obviously Overrrated

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And this is me, preparing to read the latest batch of fiction from my students (who are actually wonderful people who make me love my job).

Twenty years ago, one of my students wrote a story about a kid who is bored at his new job in the women’s clothing section of a large department store. We had talked about putting protagonists into a position where they had to make a moral decision. For this protagonist, a person who considered himself one of the good guys, it was whether or not to call store security when he witnessed an older, clearly disadvantaged person shoplifting. The story received a coveted Gold Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. In the letter of congratulations, the contest coordinator made a special point to note that the hardest thing for any young writer to do is to write a short story.

Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about it, but two decades later, those prophetic words stalk me and my students. No matter the models, no matter the warnings, no matter the conferences, young writers turn out — let’s call them rough — pieces of short fiction. Why? Because, for the most part, they want nothing to do with the real world and/or anything that actually happens to people in it.

Take this week, for example. In our Stranger Comes to Town unit, we read a Bo Caldwell story called “When Children Are Present.” It is about what happens when a young man starts working at a daycare and a child dies under mysterious circumstances. We spent a day outlining situations in which a person’s gender might complicate a plot. What happens when a woman takes over as small town volunteer fire chief and someone is killed in a house fire? Is she judged more harshly than the previous male chief would have been? What happens when a peeping Tom disturbs a peaceful, friendly neighborhood. Does the middle aged, unmarried man whose sole passion is fostering cats draw unfair attention?

We read A and P by John Updike. How many of you have been bored at work? I ask. Every hands goes up. Okay, I continue. Now think: what kind of a stranger could come in a disrupt the day? Someone suggests that a 60 year old man gets a job in the teenaged clothing store that she works in. I feel a dangerous glimmer of hope.

I worry that Cheever’s Good-bye My Brother will not appeal to them, but they come in very excited to discuss it. They cite powerful passages. They respond animatedly to the characters. Everyone understands that the blacksheep of the family might, indeed, be a stranger. In fact, many of them know this firsthand. The odd uncle who finally shows up for Thanksgiving. The cousin who dropped out of school and has been living out of dumpsters in New York City despite the family’s wealth.

We draw maps of a setting and describe what kinds of lives exist in it. Several quiet minutes pass as students envision the placement of playgrounds, stadiums, salt marshes. They use color pencils and markers, label all kinds of things. Next, they put these aside and create one paperdoll with some kind of history, a brief description. We tape these to the board and raffle them off. “Take this character,” I say, “and put him or her into your setting. What happens?”

When, finally, it is time to write, they tap away on their keys. Based on their Character Goes on a Journey stories, I am on red alert. Plots for those stories mostly derived from one of three places: The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Clue. But surely my comments and their grades will remind them: real world, real world, real world.

Anyone need help getting started? I ask. A hand shoots up. I glance down at the graphic organizer she’s sketched in her notebook. In the center circle, in all caps: SUPERHERO.

Now, I have two choices and both of them spell failure not for my student, but for me. Do I remind her how difficult it is to create an ENTIRE world and make your reader believe it, thereby crushing her creative impulse? Or do I offer my useless advice and then set her free to write a story that, despite my most optimistic hopes, will fail miserably?

Actually, I can do neither because her question is: What is a really cool way a superhero might come by her powers?

What can I say? My own imagination is just not that vivid.

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes says that no matter how inexperienced kids are, they are capable of writing good poems, a philosophy I have total faith in. Kids stun  — and I mean STUN — me every year with the poems they create. But most things that stun me about fiction have been that numbing kind of stun that comes from a really bad stubbed toe. The searing pain and then the wretched throbbing. The anger you feel towards that stupidly placed piece of furniture, your own lack of grace. God, you need something to punch.

Since I can’t do this, when I start reading another fantasy piece in a heartlessly tall pile of stories, I write a list of all the new words the writer has invented at the bottom of the first page. Only the author knows if these are places, people, tribes who survived the apocalypse, days of the week.

Other stories, I just collect for future Ripley’s Believe it or Not plot device games I might or might not play someday.

For example: The story where a girl invites a stranger to a concert her younger sister desperately wanted to attend so the younger sister gets her revenge by asking out a boy the older sister likes. Eventually, they even marry, and then — wait for it — she discovers he’s their long-lost brother.

The superhero came by her powers by falling on her face during marching band practice. Sniffing pavement, it turns out, makes one invincible. And maybe the story itself didn’t quite come together, but I can applaud the real gem here: a marching band superhero fired up by asphalt. In a fiction writing class full of young people on ridiculously artificial deadlines, this is considered a good day.

Now, I could end this blog entry with a line like Joyce’s: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. It would fit.

Or I could just end it the way young fiction writers do, no matter how many times you beg them not to: And then, I woke up.

 

Free Poetry. Really.

Stand Poets, Class of 2014.

When a group of four walks into the Ipswich Art Show, I am sitting behind the Poetry Stand stand. They glance at me and then quickly look away, afraid to make eye contact with an offer they intend to reject.

“Free poetry,” I say anyway. “My students will write you a poem on any subject. You can have it written as you browse.”

A chorus of embarrassed no thank-you’s as they hurry away. The fourth person also starts to walk past and then stops. “Free poems did you say?”

I nod. “We don’t even accept donations.”

He studies me for a moment, maybe to make sure this isn’t some invitation to join a cult thinly disguised as some free love come-on and then he says, “Then what’s the point?”

We get this a lot at the Poetry Stand.

The stand is not my idea. It came from an article in American Scholar by a poet-slash-teacher named Doug Goetsch who set out with a group of students to write poems for strangers (http://theamericanscholar.org/poetry-stand/#.VDFOtkvxUxc) . At the time I came across this article, I was home raising our daughters but I tucked the idea away with the same kind of someday-sigh that I reserve for real estate ads of cottages along the Sakonnet River in Tiverton, RI. Fantastic dream, but you’d have to hit the equivalent of the lottery to make it a reality.

And then, a few years after I started teaching again, I met Abbie. She was a poet, an actor, the kind of generous person who only knows how to include everyone no matter the task or the adventure. During her sophomore year, I told her about the stand and she said, “I’d love to do that.” Okay, I thought, then it’d be Abbie and me. But one voice had at least sounded in the universe.

Two years later, Abbie and fifteen other kids signed up for my first ever senior poetry class (I admit it: I am a lucky bastard) and this time when I mentioned the poetry stand, Abbie said: “You keep saying it. Why don’t we do it already?” Maybe I was my tentative, dbuious, fall-back, cautiously optimistic, borderline pessimistic self, but one Saturday in April, six of us set up shop in Newburyport and thirty or so poems later, the poetry stand became The Poetry Stand. Four years and hundreds of poems later . . . people still want to know: what’s the point?

Well, here are some of the millions of points that I can think of to get us started:

  1. A man says, “I’ve been watching what you guys are doing for a while and now I’ve come up with a poem. I just moved her from the midwest and would like an existential poem about it.” Abbie says: “I got this. We read The Stranger in French with Dr. Ladd.”
  2. Another woman wants a sonnet from the perspective of a brick. Abbie writes that one, too.
  3. A woman with a baby carriage hugs me and says, “You know how sometimes you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for? That’s what happened to me when Lisa wrote me this poem today.”
  4. A man decides to post Olivia’s brewmaster poem on the labels of his homebrew.
  5. Anna can’t make the Sunday night stand and arranges a Saturday night one, instead.
  6. Maddie writes a poem for a busker and he reciprocates.
  7. “Can you throw some German expressions into a poem about antiques?” she asks, and Hannah says yes.
  8. Alumni perform cameo requests.
  9. After her poem on friendship, Liz gets a hug from a woman who says, “How did you know exactly how I was feeling?”
  10. Julia says, “How does this work?” and I say, “You’ll get at least one grandchild and one cat poem,” and she does. And she really loves cats, so . . .
  11. Jeremy does a multi-stanza rhyming epic starring the Incredible Hulk with a four year old leaning against his leg.
  12. Tom, Abbie, and Tara take the stand all by themselves to Salem.
  13. Alli, Emily, Maddie, Britta, Olivia, Erin don’t take a poetry course and sign up anyway and in this way, year two unfolds.
  14. Jazmine, Devin, and Shannon set up a satellite office by the waterfront in Newburyport and business is great!
  15. Colin writes a poem for a group of fourth graders and when one of them says, “Now can you read it in French?” he does!!
  16. Ryan says: “I didn’t want to do this at first, but it’s been a great day.”
  17. Kyle needs a little help with One Direction info but makes the most of the brainstorm session.
  18. Sometimes, we get pizza; sometimes, cider donuts.
  19. Ink freezes when it’s 12 degrees, but Gus writes with no gloves, Austin doesn’t have a hat, and the girls hunker down inside Zumi’s to collaborate on pony poems.
  20. People cry.
  21. People beg us to take their money (we don’t, though one person stuck money in Gus’s empty coffee mug anyway).
  22. Every time I make an announcement: Anyone interested in working The Poetry Stand, kids show up (Sophie first).

So far over seventy kids have written for The Poetry Stand: sonnets, haiku, pastorals, poems about dying loved ones and video games, plain old elusive joy; they have written about teddy bear hamsters and Lego Star Wars, about the empty nest syndrome and sibling devotion; they have written so that a girl might fall in love with the stranger before them; they have written about the blues and sailing, about a child with Down’s Syndrome, about Tyrannosaurus Rex; they have written from a line someone hands them. They are always ready to write the next thing.

The point is poetry and the way in which it connects us to the world. The point is there will never be any strings attached. The point is that, this weekend, at the very last minute, kids walked in out of the rain on Saturday night or sat beneath a streetlight Sunday night and grabbed clipboards to start writing. The point is, whenever The Poetry Stand is open for business, another one of my dreams comes true.