I arrived at Ada Junior High School 15 minutes early. I walked past the football team, heard the whistle shrilling, the coach exhorting, saw band members sauntering, carrying their instruments, a leering sun on their shoulders. I followed the “Visitors must check in” sign, approached the desk operated by a student and a professional. I introduced myself, then asked where I could find my host teacher. The monitor looked at me, responded: “Are you the, uh… ?”
“Poet,” I filled in the word for her.
Approximately 30 young adults entered the library and arranged themselves in a standing/sitting semi-circle in order see my poems projected on the wall. This is an after-school writing group that voluntarily meets each Tuesday, and much of it is about poetry. Their weekly meetings are voluntary and put on by a few teachers and librarians, dedicated, under-appreciated professionals who go beyond what is expected to provide opportunities for something that us poets like to call “transcendence.”
The students were well prepared. They had been given copies of eight of my poems and studied them before this meeting. They were sincere, attentive, thinking about something occurring to them they cannot quite articulate. But we all felt it.
I read; they listened. They read; I listened. They told me they write for “self-expression” and “to cope,” as one so delicately put it.
Afterwards, many came up to me, one by one, with a photocopy of one of my poems, asking me to sign it. They also showed me their writing.
Nothing is quite so humbling as to have, for a second, a future in your hands.
I don’t know if oil-plagued Oklahoma will ever get its resources adequately arranged for the best holistic education. There is so much mismanaged energy toward rushing ill-prepared students into the corporate work force—students who have never confronted their humanity, their essential sense of a developing self that cries out for affirmation and understanding. When we treat our local school systems as simply production lines for a labor force, really, in the long run, no one benefits, except maybe a small percentage at the top who might capitalize briefly and then flee when skies darken.
I’m all for lab science and math and all the other survival skills and traditional subjects, especially history. But there’s just as much to be learned from poetry as a scientific formula.
The students and I had a significant talk about my poem “Security Guard,” which they asked me to read; it’s not one I would not have volunteered. The discussion began with the Holocaust, but moved naturally to lingering implications of cultural oppression.
It’s clear to me that we need to have poetry in the schools because, for one reason among many, it moves us toward honesty and seriousness in all the rest of the curriculum. Students instinctively seek their souls, and when they don’t find it in standardized curriculum, they become disenchanted with school, becoming deflated during a significant portion of their developmental life. The social challenges they face become daunting with little release at school, or home.
As I left the campus, my host walked with me to the parking lot. I told her the goal is not to produce Pulitzer Prize winners. The goal is for each of us to participate in the creative process. Even in reduced circumstances, we may find satisfaction within that greater conversation of self and others: Who are we? Who are my neighbors? What is our obligation to one another? Who cares?
Contrary to the bleached, scaled-down approach to education, when students are given opportunities to seek self-understanding within their social and historical contexts, ironically they become more outward-looking, gaining perspective of others, and self-aware students tend to be thoughtful about their society.
Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016