By Nancy McCabe
Spalding MFA Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Faculty
Driving right into the sunrise in upstate South Carolina, I’m full of missionary zeal, fired up to convert kids to poetry. But reality gets its grip on me soon enough. When I arrive at the school at 8:30, no one is expecting me. “What about Spanish?” I hear one of the fifth grade teachers ask as they all assemble in the hall for a hurried consultation. “And we still have to finish our displays for the accreditation team.”
“But this is mandated by the district,” another teacher keeps saying.
Eventually, the teachers conclude they can only spare a half hour each. I will start at 9:00 and finish by 11:00.
Nevertheless, it feels like hours. The kids are unprepared and chaotic, their routine interrupted by some stranger charging in to talk about writing. I feel like a commercial stuck in between spelling and math, a quick plug for poetry.
I wonder if these kids are really absorbing anything as I zip through some introductory stand-bys passed down through generations of MFA students team-teaching at schools back in Arkansas—the poetry monster who emphasizes the importance of using the five senses and the word jail where we lock up abstract words, bailing them out by converting them to concrete images. I talk about comparisons and surprises. I read Theodore Roethke’s “Child on Top of a Greenhouse” and Dudley Randall’s “Blackberry Sweet.”
The kids can’t recall a single image after I finish, but then, intercom interruptions and messengers wandering in and out keep distracting us all. The kids raise their hands constantly even when they have nothing to say. When we work on generating images, students mention TV and Nintendo heroes. As soon as we make a little progress, I have to race off to the next class.
By 11:00, I’m hoarse and exhausted, my hands and clothes streaked with neon green chalkdust. I’ve been standing in the blast from the vents of these overheated classrooms, then dashing from one building to another in the cold while flags whip in the wind and the flagpole jangles. And I wonder: how do teachers do this all day?
I wake faintly hoping I’ll be hit by a truck before I can get to the school. But when I arrive, kids rush up to hug me. They chorus greetings in the hall.
We review the elements of poetry.
“Courage,” says one boy.
“Well, OK.” I write it up. The more I think about it, the more I realize what a good answer it is. Sometimes when I sit down to write, I feel like I should put on a seat belt, like I’m about to do something dangerous at high speeds.
He looks sheepish. “I mean comparisons,” he says.
“And courage,” I assure him. “Courage more than anything.”
They’ve written poems since yesterday, converting abstract emotions to concrete images. They read aloud poems called “Sadness,” “Love,” and “The Killer Instinct.” One boy has written a poem introducing himself to me:
I’m mean And bad And sad And glad.
The teacher frowns at him while he reads it aloud. “Sit down,” she tells him. She seems weary, as if he’s the class bad kid she is always having to scold.
We read some riddle poems: May Swenson’s “Southbound on the Freeway,” Duane Ackerman’s “Umbrella,” Charles Simic’s “Watermelon.” We talk about Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors,” which stumps them for a while. We walk through the pregnancy images: an elephant, a ponderous house, a melon strolling on two tendrils, a rising loaf of bread.
“Have you ever seen bread rise?” I ask the kids.
“Yeah, when it comes up out of the toaster,” a girl answers.
The kids get into figuring out the poems and writing their own, and they groan when I have to leave. It’s all very gratifying until the last class. No one warned me I was going to have a group of sixth graders, girls towering over boys and huddling in their seats, folding their arms over emerging breasts; boys beating intricate rhythms on their desks, spontaneously bursting into song, and leaping out of their seats at random intervals. One rises and runs in place, slow, fluid steps. It’s like watching a slow motion film of someone running.
I wish I’d brought some accessible poems about taboo subjects, sex and drugs, some poems with stronger rhythms. These kids, on the brink of adolescence, on the edge of tumultuous discoveries, stare blankly at me, another adult who they can’t imagine ever having had passions or conflicts resembling theirs or anything relevant to say. And I start to doubt myself: do I?
I was supposed to be working with fourth graders, and all I have after I finish the riddles is Rose Rauter’s “Peach” and Lisel Mueller’s “Talking to Helen.” One boy sneaks on a pair of sunglasses and flicks his fingers in the air, becoming a smart-ass Helen Keller. He does a surprisingly convincing reenactment of Helen discovering language as water pours from the pump. His face lights up, his mouth an exaggerated startled O. The teacher scolds him. Still, I can’t help but think, in this restless class, that he’s the only one who heard the poem.
The first two groups of fifth graders participate enthusiastically in the “If” exercise. The first class draws the words hope and spinach, and comes up with lines like
If hope were spinach Doctors on the TV show Chicago Spinach Would perform open leaf surgery.
The second class gets love and glue. I ask them what songs they know about love, and they all join in on one by Patti Labelle: Love, love, love, When you talk about love, You talk about me.
We finish a goofy poem about sniffing love to get high and about marriages sticking longer. As I leave, the entire class serenades me:
Glue, glue, glue When you talk about glue You talk about me.
The third class ends up with the word love, too. The teacher says, “If anyone gives you trouble, write up their names.” Then she exits before I can protest that I don’t know their names.
We start brainstorming about love. Kids keep popping up out of their seats and tiptoeing in the aisles as if their silence will render them invisible. I fix stares on them and order them to sit, which they do—until I look elsewhere.
“What about love?” I ask.
“Fornication,” says one girl. All eyes follow me, waiting for a reaction.
“OK, what about it?” I ask.
“Fornication,” she says louder, and everyone starts buzzing.
“Yeah?” I say. “What about it?”
“The S word,” says another. They all scream. I write sex on the board. Voices rise to a din.
“What other kinds of love are there?’ I try.
“Fornication!” they all yell. “Sex sex sex!” Then they roar with laughter at their cleverness.
The sixth grade boys storm into their classroom, shoving around desks, heaving down backpacks, looking grim. “I hate this school,” one boy mutters. “Someday I’m going to bomb it and everyone in it.”
Three of the girls attempt poems. The fourth girl draws a row of hearts with names inside. None of the boys will write anything, though they sing and beat on their desks quite impressively.
If I were a teacher in a movie, I’d pull out all the stops, I’d stun the sixth graders with my knowledge of rap music and my karate ability, I’d rip the pages out of books and have kids saluting me and calling me “oh Captain my Captain.” But I know that all I can really hope is that maybe one kid will remember one line from a poem or one thing she thought I said, and maybe, years later, that one thing will enter the mix of her life and come out meaningful. What that one thing might be is probably out of my control.
It’s the Thursday before a long weekend. Half of the first class has to leave after fifteen minutes. Yesterday I pasted Weekly World News headlines to cards: “Farmer cuts out his own gallstone.” “Health nut gives up veggies when sliced onion screams in pain.” After reading aloud their poems, some of the kids hug me goodbye and want to know when I’ll be back.
The fifth grade boy who wrote me a poem introducing himself on Tuesday plants himself beside me, standing his ground while other children crowd around to say goodbye.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
“I’m trying to hug you,” he says, making no move to do so.
And so I hug him awkwardly, saying, “Stay mean and bad.”
He steps back and regards me gravely. “And sad and glad,” he reminds me.
The last class looks so apathetic, I don’t bother with the headlines. Instead, I just start reading poems, watching for any spark of interest. The wordplay in a Nikki Giovanni poem leaves them staring blankly. A few kids perk up at Lillian Morrison’s “The Sidewalk Racer.” I usually steer away from rhyme because it has a tendency to overtake meaning in their writing, but I’m desperate. I write out “The Sidewalk Racer” on the board. I call on a couple of kids to read it. Both stumble over most of the words.
“Can I do it like a rap song?” asks one kid. He stands up and starts, but he can’t read fast enough to achieve the effect he imagined. He trips on even simple words, then gives up, discouraged.
I try some more poems with strong rhythms, which gets the boys banging on their desks with pencils, but pretty soon, they are completely out of sync with the poems, nearly drowning me out. With obvious reluctance on their part, we read the skateboard poem all at the same time. They gather steam and shout out the ending.
I’m the one and only single engine human auto mobile.
On that note, they’ve had enough. They get up and stretch and meander around and start conversations. The teacher looks at me apologetically and shrugs.
If I were a teacher in a movie, fireworks would explode at the end of every visit, music would swell, and the power of language would burn a path through hormones, poverty, racism, and illiteracy, through alcoholic parents and divorce and Nintendo.
Instead, as miles distance me from the school and my vague feeling of failure, I remember that one fifth grader, the class bad boy, whose eyes flickered with a flint and steel that might someday blaze up into a love for language, a passion for metaphors and stories. Driving, I figure out what I’ll do differently next time.
Because there will probably be a next time, just because despite everything else, every now and then, you run into that one mean and bad kid who wants you to know that he’s also sad and glad.
Nancy McCabe loves hearing others’ stories about making a living in the arts; this one is an excerpt from her first book, After the Flashlight Man: A Memoir of Awakening (Purdue 2003). In addition to writing, editing, working as a writer in the schools and teaching at colleges and conferences, she has worked for a stock market magazine, as a debate judge, doing grammatical analyses of sentences for an attorney’s office, and grading California high school exit essays, among other things.
She has published three other books, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood (Missouri 2014). She regularly blogs for Ploughshares on travel and literature, and has work in three recent anthologies: Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Remember their Fathers (McPherson 2015); Oh Baby: Tales of Pregnancy, Surrogacy, Conception, Adoption, Labor, and Love (In Fact 2015); and A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel (World Traveler Press 2015). In addition to mentoring in fiction and nonfiction at Spalding, she directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.