I noticed the questions. Then I noticed the pleading. High school students often write poetry that challenges and consoles us at the same time. At least that’s how it lands on me. Over the last two days, I visited three schools as Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, in Howard County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. We visited Wilde Lake High School, Centennial High School, and Hammond High School. Kathy Hurwitz, who knows many of the teachers and certainly knows the school was my trusty guide. While each school is a bit different, the common thread I saw in the students’ poetry surprised me and gave me hope.
These last few months have been difficult ones in America. From the highlight on police violence, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others– to the killing of two New York Police Officers– our young people pay attention. They notice these events, they see the adult reactions around them, and they carry strong feelings about all of this. At least that was true of the students whose classes I visited over the last two days.
On Tuesday, December 22nd, I visited Howard County’s Wilde Lake High School. The class I worked with included about twenty students from a 10th grade ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) class. They had a remarkably enthusiastic teacher, which makes all the difference in the world. I started this class by asking them what made a good poem. Several said a good poem has feeling and the reader should be able to connect to it somehow. It all made sense to me. For students who supposedly have some challenges with English, these young people were doing very well. I then read a couple of the “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan poems” and talked about the importance of self-expression, telling your story. We even talked about Emily Dickinson’s poem “This is my letter to the world…” I asked them to take about fifteen minutes to write their “letter to the world.” This diverse group of students did a marvelous job. I walked around the room looking over their shoulders and encouraging them if they seemed stuck. But very few students were stuck. They had ideas and they wanted to express them. I asked if a few would be willing to read their poems aloud and about six students did. One young man named PJ (I’ll just use initials) read about his desire for peace in the world. Two young women wrote about loneliness and ways of tending to that experience. Another young man named K, wrote about the danger of scapegoating– whether in teen social circles or among countries. This was strong stuff, I thought, for tenth graders. I was also struck by the number of questions that showed up in these poems. They weren’t lecturing. They were asking. Sometimes pleading. These young people see their world and want it to change.
Wednesday, December 23rd found me in the Media Center at Centennial High School. Here we met with an AP English class and an Advanced Composition class. These students had more experience writing and they did some fine work too. I started by reading a couple of poems about people I admire. I read “For Her, Sitting” about Rosa Parks and “Hammering on Rocks” about Nelson Mandela. Then I urged them to write for about fifteen minutes about a person they admire or a person who has broken their heart. I also told them if they had any poem burning inside them they should ditch my prompt and write what they chose. I’m glad that some did just that. A young man named J wrote a beautiful poem about autumn. He built his poems around some remarkable verbs. One young woman wrote a poem in which she addressed a girl who had suffered abuse. A young man named M read a poem about Malcolm X. I told him to take a look at Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “Malcolm X.” I hope he does. In our discussion of these poems they all agreed that a good poem has emotions and ferocity. It should not be about anything trivial. I was moved. I was struck again by the frequent use of questions in the poems they read. They too were asking and imagining.
We finished Wednesday at Hammond High School. I met with a large group– maybe seventy-five students. They came from a variety of classes so we had a brief discussion and I read more poems since we didn’t have enough time for them to write. This group met in the school’s auditorium so writing would have been a challenge. When asked what makes a good poem, some of these students said a poem had to be true. It had to be authentic. They also noted that we all need to express our feelings and that if we don’t do this we’re usually in trouble. They talked about poetry being a good way to let one’s own “true” feelings out. There clearly were some serious poets in this large group because they asked questions about craft. One young woman asked why several of my poems are written in two-line stanzas. I told her a few years ago I realized I could see more options for line breaks if I drafted poems in two-line stanzas. She nodded her head like this made perfect sense to he.
Meeting with students over poems, their own and mine, give me great hope. While every student is different and their writing will reflect, in some ways, their facility with the language, the desire and heart beneath the poems is evident. The young people I met in the last couple of days clearly care about the world around them. They care about finding their place in that world. They deeply care about their own abilities to express themselves. And they ask questions. That is hopeful. To me, that is very hopeful.