Poetry worked its magic again yesterday in Howard County high schools. I met with students at Atholton High School and Mt. Hebron High School in two different settings– but the result was the same: students want, need, and get fired up about poetry.
At Atholton High School, Kathy Hurwitz, the high school liaison for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society met me in the main office. We made our way to the Career Center where we met with about 15 students from an Advanced Writing class. These young people rocked! They were prepared and insightful. We talked about Emily Dickinson’s poem “This is my Letter to the World.” I read from my “Cool Disco Dan” series and asked them what their “Letter to the World” might be. What would they paint in 5-foot high letters? I also urged them to consider writing a portrait of another person. With those two options, they went at it.
I made my way around the room looking over their shoulders. I saw some magnificent first lines and told them so. For about 10 minutes they wrote in silence. This was a group who clearly loved to write and had been taught well. With about 15 minutes left in our time, I stopped them and asked who might like to read their work. We had a good discussion about the challenges and victories in writing. Then they read. These young people took risks. They surprised us with moving and hilarious language about ex-boyfriends. They explored the mysterious inner-workings of the teenage mind with poems about love and even about getting back at someone. Their teacher commented that because she had been privileged to read their work for the last several months, she shared some of her writing on the prompt too. All together, I think 6 or 7 students read their work before our time was up.
I told them about Lucille Clifton, Howard County’s 1st Poet-in-Residence, and recited her poem “blessing the boats.” Once again, this workshop proved how poetry can lift students out of their own fears, how it can connect them to others. We just need to give them an encouraging atmosphere in which to write.
Soon, we were off to Mt. Hebron High School where the setting would be very different. We were to meet in the school’s cavernous auditorium with 5 or 6 classes at once. This wouldn’t be a writing workshop with that many students but we’d see if we could have some conversation and I’d read more poems than at a smaller workshop. As the students entered, I talked to a few who seemed eager and interested. We had 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, including an AP English class! So this was quite a large number and an immense range of students. But once again, these students proved they wanted to hear poetry, they wanted to explore it. And they taught me something I didn’t expect.
I began by asking them if they could recall a poem that mattered to them. For such a large group, we had a terrific discussion. Often young people don’t want to raise their hands in front of students they don’t know but that wasn’t much of a problem with this group. They mentioned Robert Frost, one student mentioned a Shakespeare sonnet she recalled, among others. Then I read a few of my poems which they had also read ahead of time. I read a few poems which speak to large political questions: “George Zimmerman’s Options” and “For Gilberto Ramos.” We discussed the power poetry can have on a whole community, a whole country. Then I shared a more personal poem about my father’s aging. I read “My Father’s Last Friend.” We talked about the public and personal benefits which poetry can provide.
They surprised me by asking about the “Bone Man” poems. I had not read these at any of the high school visits because I wasn’t sure mortality would interest them. But these wise students proved me wrong. They were anxious to hear about “Bone Man” They considered what he represented and enjoyed his skeletal character. So for the first time at one of the high schools, I read “Meeting Bone Man” and “Bone Man Is Not My Friend.” They asked several questions about the origin of that image. They had rich observations about him as a humorous character. A couple of students wondered aloud that perhaps he should be a friend. I was moved by this. I didn’t expect it at all.
I’m a little sad that there is only one more day of visits in my time as HoCoPoLitSo’s Poet-in-Residence. What a joy this has been. Whether it’s a small class writing and sharing their work aloud– or a hundred students in an auditorium– poetry helps our young people. It provides a safe place for them to explore their feelings: fears, joys, apprehensions. It provides them with a chance to create, to see the fruit of their own imaginations. Perhaps most importantly, it shows them how similar we all are– in our humanity. When they’re given a chance, especially in an encouraging setting, many students will love poetry.