6th grade poetry

November 30, 2006

i’m working on a unit over to kill a mockingbird. i’m making it for my “methods of teaching secondary english” class and one of the activities will be letter writing as the characters in the novel. i was researching letter writing and came across this letter. i have no idea who heather o’neill is, but this letter (if true) is simultaneously disturbing, genius, and a big part of why i want to teach.

Montreal, Quebec
July 25, 2000

Dear Justin,

The principal at Arizona’s elementary school talked me into teaching a poetry class to a group of students. I had reservations about teaching poetry to children. I believe you have to write without inhibitions to create a beautiful poem. I wondered if this wasn’t in conflict with the school’s agenda to mold the children into considerate and well-behaved individuals who fit harmoniously with the rest of society. I asked for the oldest group of kids, the grade sixes. I figured at least they could read.

I thought they would be my size. In my memory, I attained my actual height at least by grade four. I was surprised by how small they were. I had even less of a notion of what went on in their heads.

During the first class, I decided to let them write their own poems without any suggestions or guidance from me, just to see what they wrote like. They asked if they should write about Halloween, which was coming up. I said, please, no. So they all wrote about Christmas and Hanukkah. The poems all rhymed and some had exactly the same lines. “I am proud of my heritage” was a popular one. There was nothing personal in any of the poems. You couldn’t even tell whether a boy or a girl had written it. What a waste of time, I thought. I was hoping for at least one Alphabet City poet who rapped about cockroaches in her coffee cup and her mother’s middle names. I’d read a funky, radical book about teaching poetry to inner-city New York kids, and they all wrote lines like, “It’s raining apples. How can I avoid temptation?” At twenty-five, I’m a little too young to be a mother or much of an authority figure in the first place. But the kids treated me as if I was a statue they were afraid of.

The night after my first class, I put on my flip-flops and this pin-striped suit I got modeling at some runway show in New York City when I was twenty. I walked to the video store. I was smoking a cigarette and my dog followed me in. He always does that and there’s nothing I can be bothered to do about it. The video-store clerks are used to me and it isn’t anything like an upscale neighborhood. I picked a rental I’d seen before. On the way to the cash I saw a kid named Clyde from my class.

“What movie did you pick,” he asked.

I held up the video that was under my arm, “Gummo.”

“It’s about these kids who are alienated because a tornado hit their town,” I said. “They kill cats and sell them to a Chinese restaurant.”

“Cool, should I rent it?”

“I don’t know. You might be too young for it. Not because of the sex and violence. But it might give you that creepy feeling, like when you see an older couple screaming at each other on the street.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s so cool. I never really thought about it that way,” he said, nodding. “Are you coming again next week?”

“Yeah, of course.”


The next class I thought we’d begin by having a discussion about what poetry was. I brought in some of the most contemporary stuff I could find, spoken word rants about television shows and erotic vacuum cleaners and the like. Weird-ass stuff. I said for me a poem was like a photograph that captures a moment of beauty. “You know, like you visualize an isolated frame of time that excites you. It doesn’t have to fit the normal idea of what pretty is.”

“Like what?” asked a girl.

I decided to go for the first thing that popped into my head.

“Sometimes things that people think are ugly are really beautiful. Like children pretending to clean cans in a thrown-out sink.”

I looked at Clyde, who was sitting close to me like I was his buddy. He was wearing a black tie with a gorgeous yellow songbird on it over his T-shirt. He was already writing away. I looked down at the piece of paper in front of him. His poem was called “Love is a Black Dog in a Video Store.” I decided to go with a cinematic example since my ideas about movies were what bonded me and Clyde.

“Like in that movie ‘Taxi Driver.’ The director takes the camera down a tiny sweating hallway, and then there’s a man handing out keys to cheap rooms. He’s wearing a top hat for no reason. There’s something beautiful about that and it has nothing to do with Christmas.”

There was a silence all of a sudden, the kind that only a roomful of kids can produce. I felt a little sweaty. I took off my sweater. They all looked at the tattoo on my shoulder immediately. I felt self-conscious all of a sudden, like I was getting too familiar with them. I quickly put my sweater back on. The damage had already been done. Joseph, this kid with blond hair in his face and sunglasses hanging from the neck of his T-shirt, stood up and pointed his finger at me.

“Are you lookin’ at me?” he said.

Alex began humming “You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings,” as he started to write his poem. There were band-aids on the tips of each of his finger to stop him from biting his fingernails. He peeled one off his middle finger and started chewing happily on the nail. They had nothing to hide from me.

Whereas in the first class they didn’t look at me in the eyes, now they became talkative. Actually, they began to get out of control. They cursed and the boys started making lewd advance to the girls. One boy asked for “poetic license” to punch his best friend in the head.

Then I started reading the poems they were holding out in front of me and sliding across my desk. They had suddenly become open on the paper as well as in the classroom. One had compared feeling good to disco balls, one had written about a raving stepbrother who drank all the orange juice in the house, one had written about his dad letting him sleep out on the balcony in the summer.

Sean pulled out his toenail that he was keeping in his pocket and put it in the center of his table. The other kids scrambled away disgusted.

“Because of this toenail,” he said, “I’m now considered the sickest kid in the school.”

His poem was called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Toilet.” He compared his toilet to his mother’s arm looking through the back of the fridge for a jar of maraschino cherries.

In their writing, their desires and views of themselves were revealed. Take Joseph for instance. He was one of those kids with older brothers, who mysteriously hit puberty too early. He had a sort of Jim Morrison complex. He wrote a poem about wearing leather pants and riding a motorcycle through the desert. There were red snakes curled up on the horizon. He crashed near a motel and ended up overdosing on hashish all alone on the side of the road. Alex wrote a poem about how badly he wanted to have a queen-sized bed. He said his purest desire was to have twelve Japanese women dressed in blue lingerie singing him Britney Spears songs every night.

“Whoa,” I said. “We’re in school. I could go to jail for letting you write that stuff.”

“You said to write about anything,” Alex said.

Laurence, meanwhile, was comparing Salma Hayek’s eyes to faucets leaking grape juice, and he did it in such a simple and moving way. And there was this beautiful and sensitive child in the class named Jake, whose poems were brilliant. He was profoundly deaf and skipped a grade. All the other students seemed mildly oblivious to his existence. Here’s a line from his poem:

Getting dirty is
taking a bath backwards

Your sister,
just watching some city children writing on the wall,




November 30, 2006

i cannot stop looking at this print.  it is “the tree of life, soclet frieze” by gustav klimt and it pulls me in like a great melody or a melancholy lyric.  i see neil young’s ‘harvest moon’ in it, hear billie holiday singing ‘strange fruit,’ feel the warmth of hundred tealight candles burning in a dark, quiet room. it looks like a quilt we had when i was growing up that became so ratty my mom made pillows out of it’s salvageable pieces.  there is nature and nurture, voyeurism and volition, the swirling sordid connectiveness of the world and a patchwork possibility of beauty everywhere, even underfoot.  i do not own this print, but i think i will very soon, if only to have it in front of me everyday, full of promise & passion.

celebrity slip-ups

November 29, 2006

can someone please explain the no underpants thing that celebs have going on these days? i cannot for the life of me figure out the correlation between NOT wearing panties and being wildly famous. i know this post is neither intellectual nor poignant, but hang in here with me. perhps we have gotten so jaded as a culture that celebrities feel the only way to really reveal the true essence of themselves is to show us their southland-in-the-springtime. ( my apologies to the indigo girls for stealing a title to one of their songs, but it is just so darned appropriate). maybe “the 3 coozes” (paris, lindsay, and britney) are making apolitical statement by showing off their how do you dos.

of course, i don’t think the 3 coozes are remotely intelligent enough to consider any implications of falafel flashing as anything more than the drunken dreams of papparazzi. these idiots are role models for millions of girls, or at least have been at some time, and i weep for the future of those girls.

when i was in high school i read sassy magazine and loved janene garofalo, winona ryder, lily taylor and samantha mathis. indy girls with ideals and yes, admittedly, sometimes less than stellar style and questionable hygiene, but at least they had opinions on the issues of the day that got printed in magazines, as opposed to photos of them swilling liquor underage and showing off their professionaly waxed what-have-you’s.

all i’m saying is i hope the girls i teach in high school see themselves as far more valuable than the clothes the wear, the boys they date, and the parties they attend. and if they don’t then i hope, after having classeswith me, they will. every woman has unlimited opportunities to be a leader, and she doesn’t have to get drunk and sloppy and parade her panty-less personal parts to do it.


November 26, 2006

i have been blessed my whole life.  this is not an exaggeration.  i have the most incredible family, an amazing brother and parents who have always loved and supported me.  my extended family, too, is wonderful.  my brother and teryn were in kansas city and i missed them dearly this thanksgiving, but they were entertaining teryn’s family and i know as we all start to get older the lines of tradition will blur.  even if they were not with me in person, they were in spirit, as always. and then there are my incredible friends, people who have been hilarious, kind, silly, intelligent, insightful, and crazy whever i needed them to be.

and of course alex…for whom there will never be adequate words.

here are three people who make me who i am.




ku-ksu game

November 26, 2006

on november 18th alex and i went to the ku-ksu game.  my cousin jake is playing for ku, a freshman on full scholarship, and the game was great.  i never thought i would be one for big sporting events, but i have started to love them.  jake has gotten us tickets before but this game was special.  i bought tickets to this game to celebrate a date that changed my life.

on november 18th, 2002, alex called me up and asked me to go watch a meteor shower with him (it was our first date) and four years later there is nowhere i would rather be than with him.

gifted and angry

November 21, 2006

we talked a lot in one of my ed. classes today about gifted and talented kids, and it occurred to me taht on one level or another all of my friends fall into this category.  here is a definition from www.nagc.com (national associateion for gifted children)

“The current federal definition of gifted students was originally developed in the 1972 Marland Report to Congress, and has been modified several times since then. The current definition, which is located in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is ‘Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities’…”

there are some hallmarks of gifted kids and, surprisingly, one happes to be anger or frustration at feeling different and out of place in a general education classroom, or in their chronologically equivalent peer group.  i find this fascinating.  i was definitely an agry kid, often feeling more aligned with adults than kids my own age, constantly trying to make bigger connections than the ones my teachers illustrated.  i’m not trying to say “check me out, i’m suzy smart socks,” i’m just intrigued by the notion that my anger was related to upper level intellectual and creative capabilities, and not to a crazy hormonal imbalance or something. 

here’s a list of characterisitics of creatively gifted students, but there are other area as well, like general learning and visual, etc:

Creative Characteristics 

Gifted children’s creative abilities often set them apart from their age-mates. These characteristics may take the following forms: 

  • Gifted children are fluent thinkers, able to generate possibilities, consequences, or related ideas. 
  • They are flexible thinkers, able to use many different alternatives and approaches to problem solving. 
  • They are original thinkers, seeking new, unusual, or unconventional associations and combinations among items of information. 
  • They can also see relationships among seemingly unrelated objects, ideas, or facts. 
  • They are elaborate thinkers, producing new steps, ideas, responses, or other embellishments to a basic idea, situation, or problems. 
  • They are willing to entertain complexity and seem to thrive on problem solving. 
  • They are good guessers and can readily construct hypotheses or “what if” questions. 
  • They often are aware of their own impulsiveness and irrationality, and they show emotional sensitivity. 
  • They are extremely curious about objects, ideas, situations, or events. 
  • They often display intellectual playfulness and like to fantasize and imagine. 
  • They can be less intellectually inhibited than their peers are in expressing opinions and ideas, and they often disagree spiritedly with others’ statements. 
  • They are sensitive to beauty and are attracted to aesthetic values. 
  • my husband, my brother, ben, erin, jason, dannah, etc. etc. the list just keep going, all the people i am close to seem to share so many of these characteristics, but hter are no federal mandated programs for gifted kids, and a lot of them are seen as having some form of disability because their boredom in class results in acting out and/or lower grades.  they get bored and they tune out.

    so how do we reach gifted kids?  how do we get them to value their potential and not be afraid of success (another hallmark)?  i don’t know the answer.  experiences outside the classroom can help, conferences, camps, and the like, but what about in the classroom?  i hope to work hard to do right by these students, and to give them all they need to be successful.

    Robert F. Kennedy

    November 18, 2006

    i have never really liked history, but my mother’s obsession with the kennedys has carried over, and this morning, while making yummy concoctions from my weight watchers cookbook, i watched a biopic on rfk. does our generation have a bobby kennedy? an mlk? a jfk? these men stood for equality and fair wages and a level playing field. who will stand for those things now? bobby delivered this speech on the night martin luther king, jr. was shot, and i was incredibly moved by it. i pledge to try to “make gentle the life of this world.”

    Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…

    I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

    Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

    For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

    We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

    For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

    But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

    My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

    What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

    (Interrupted by applause)

    So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

    But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

    (Interrupted by applause)

    Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

    Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much. (Applause)

    Robert F. Kennedy – April 4, 1968