Monday, October 30, 2006

Motion in Poetry

There are some days that are good, and some days that are great. I find that the great days come most often when we are not taking ourselves too seriously, but are still totally involved in or engrossed in something; that is to say, when we are the most in the moment. These moments become the stuff of eternity because our participation in some quintessence ties us to it, so forgetting the ticking of the clock can stop it. As the band Borderland said in their classic, “We can have forever for a while…”

When we are in these moments the eternal ideal in which we are participating sometimes takes over, and we are swept away in the manifestation of the ideal. This can be awe-inspiring, sublime, and even hilarious. The instance when this was most obvious to me was the poetry reading contest. Let me tell you about it.

I was the Language Arts coordinator for St. Anthony School on Makawao St. in Kailua, HI. I had the fourth through sixth graders every day for all things related to English, but I was charged with doing everything related to the poetry reading contest for the Leeward Systems. All the school systems on the leeward side of the island were involved, not just the private schools. My boss made it clear, nicely, that he wanted our school to have good participation and to make this opportunity available to all of our students.

I was the student government faculty advisor. I was running a WorldWise Schools program in which my class corresponded with a Peace Corp Volunteer’s class in Malawi. I was helping my friend with the river cleanup. I was taking extra time with some individual students. I barely had time to surf as it was, I didn’t want this extra burden too, but I couldn’t say no. A flyer was printed and distributed to the student body, and I had the first meeting of the hopefuls and participants on a Thursday afternoon after school. When the bell rang and I got my kids out to their buses and rides I took a few minutes to get a cup of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. I took a deep breath and wondered first how poor the turnout would be for a poetry reading event and second how I was going to get through it without experiencing severe negative growth.

I walked back into my classroom and it was full, just as if I still had class in session. The difference was, though, that there were very little kids from the first grade and on up to kids who were considerable larger than me; eighth grade Polynesian boys can be quite large. I stood in front of them and instantly the enthusiasm emanating from the shining eyes of the youngsters started to penetrate my cynicism and seep into my person. Some of the little kids had books with them and already knew what poems they wanted to do. They were doing a sort of classroom gymnastics trying to get the teacher’s attention by raising one hand and using the other arm to support it while elongating their trunk to get the absolute most loft on the raised hand. They absolutely could not contain their nervous energy and the sounds of their “ooh, ooh, ooh”s and “mistermistermistermister” formed the background of the recitation of the contest rules. It sounded like a monstrous hive on a hot day, with all of the drones fanning their wings at the same time.

I told the kids the rules, encouraged them to pick out their poems and have them ready for my review by the next session to be held early the following week. I bade them good afternoon, and almost immediately the kids lined up in front of me to read their poems so I could tell them if the poems and the readings were good. I tried to get away, but little kids just won’t let you go. While I was listening to the little kids belt out every word that Shel Silverstein ever wrote I could also see that the bigger kids hadn’t yet wafted away. Eventually, some of the bigger kids lost patience with the little ones and moved them to the side while they monopolized my attention. The seventh and eighth graders were as excited as the little kids, but cool prevented them from showing it. Their need to communicate some of the angst and confusion that both consumed them and drove them forward kept them rooted there for some time. I was struck with an incongruously light vision of the hulking young men as planets and the frenetic, buzzing young children as their moons or comets in their Oort Cloud. I chuckled all the way home.

I knew for sure that thereafter I would have to have a real plan for preparing these kids for the readings. Since I didn’t have a TV or a radio at my house I allowed my mind to become occupied with the planning when not performing the tasks of grading papers or planning lessons. I found that I did get quite a bit of inspiration while bobbing on the waves as well. By the time the next meeting came around I did have a plan, and I thought it was a good one. I would hear every poem and decide if it were appropriate for the contest. I would give the body of students the pointers that I had discovered in my three trips to the library to research public readings of poetry. I would assign each student to a group of peers, by age, with whom each would practice recitation and offer critiques intended to assist the reciter.

Over the next few weeks the plan was implemented and I must admit that it came together better than I expected it would have. The younger kids really got into the theatrics of it, but they took the responsibility of providing criticism as an excuse to insult the other kids. I had in the past tried to get my class to compliment everybody they met on a given day, in order to combat their predilection toward conflict. It worked well with the class and I had the younger kids confine their criticisms to compliments. They found that they enjoyed giving and receiving compliments, and then they gained a vested interest in their friends’ success. The older kids were having success developing bonds with their cohorts too.

Some poems were humorous, some were inspiring, some were exercises in rhyming, and some others still were just plain dark. There were a couple of junior high school girls who were “Goth chicks” for lack of a better term, and had chosen poems of desperation with heavy, angular wording. It was hard for them to perpetuate their aura of gothic weight while wearing bright white polo shirts and long plaid skirts in the bright tropical sunshine and lilting trade winds of Oahu, but they were persistent. One of the older boys had chosen a poem by a local writer. The poem was intended to show the incompatibility between the traditional Hawaiian and mainstream American cultures, and it did so by interjecting words in Hawaiian where there were no English words to describe local wildlife or cultural circumstances. This occurs more frequently over the course of the reading until eventually the poem ends with two stanzas in Hawaiian alone. I didn’t understand it all, but I thought it was clever. My favorite, though, was a Shel Silverstein classic that goes like this:

The Bagpipe Who Didn't Say No
It was nine o'clock at midnight at a quarter after three
When a turtle met a bagpipe on the shore side by the sea,
And the turtle said, "My dearie,
May I sit with you? I'm weary."
And the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"I have walked this lonely shore,
I have talked to waves and pebbles--but I've never loved before.
Will you marry me today, dear?
Is it 'No' you're going to say dear?"
But the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to his darling,
"Please excuse me if I stare,
But you have the plaidest skin, dear,
And you have the strangest hair.
If I begged you pretty please, love,
Could I give you just one squeeze, love?"
And the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"Ah, you love me. Then confess!
Let me whisper in your dainty ear and hold you to my chest."
And he cuddled her and teased her
And so lovingly he squeezed her.
And the bagpipe said, "Aaooga."

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"Did you honk or bray or neigh?
For 'Aaooga' when you're kissed is such a heartless thing to say.
Is it that I have offended?
Is it that our love is ended?"
And the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"Shall I leave you, darling wife?
Shall I waddle off to Woedom? Shall I crawl out of your life?
Shall I move, depart and go, dear--Oh, I beg you tell me 'No' dear!"
But the bagpipe didn't say no.

So the turtle crept off crying and he ne'er came back no more,
And he left the bagpipe lying on that smooth and sandy shore.
And some night when tide is low there,
Just walk up and say, "Hello, there,"And politely ask the bagpipe if this story's really so.
I assure you, darling children, the bagpipe won't say "No."

As the big day drew nearer the kids started to voice their concerns about stage fright, nerves, and the fear of “screwing it up in front of everybody.” The older kids felt the same fears and told me one by one that they thought the exercise no longer held merit for them and they wanted to withdraw. Each asked me in condor if I would be there for his or her performance and I said that I would. One by one I talked them out of it. I gave the entire assembly a speech about how important oratory skills are, and I explained the ancient notion of arête. I also pointed out that no matter who came or did not come, that I would be there as each delivered his or her oration and that I would provide succor and support. Only after this promise was made did I realize that it was impossible to keep.

I had about thirty students, each with a five minute slot in a two and a half hour program. My zeal to buoy the kids’ confidence had clouded my ability to tell time and do math. When I got the schedule for the recitations I realized that there were many times where the kids would be reciting at the same time. I was in no position to rescind my comment, nor did I want to, but I had to figure out some way to be there for them all. I took a ride out to Kaneohe High School, where the event was to be held, and had a look at the venues for the recitations. There is, or was, a quadrangle of classrooms set out in a pattern like an old Italian villa. The classrooms had windows on both sides with louver blinds kept open at all times to maximize the breeze. I was told that the windows would be opened as much as they could be on the day of the contest because there would be no use of the ceiling fans in order to avoid unnecessary background noise. I went from room to room following the schedule of my school’s recitations, and identified who would be where and when. The Kaneohe High School bells rang and the campus was flooded with high school kids who were staring and sometimes commenting on my presence and odd behavior. No matter. I had a very tight schedule to plan and I couldn’t get caught up in justifying my presence. I identified each place and reciter and drew lines on the plan for where I would have to be in order to be recognized as present. I then choreographed my routes and where I would place myself so as to be situated in the line of sight of the participant. Then I did a practice run to make sure I had it all down pat and that it could be done in the correct time. Then I did it again. I thought for sure that I had it nailed.

The day of the contest came, and we all met in the parking lot / playground of the school and convoyed to the high school. My good friend came too, to cheer on his students in the contest, and to offer support if I needed it. I had a few responsibilities as the coordinator from my school in order to ensure that all of the participants were registered and were present. By the time I had the school registered the recitations were set to begin. I walked my youngest, most nervous student to his venue and stayed with him until he was two minutes into his reading and apparently had stopped looking to me as an anchor in the audience. I took off for my next destination with a cartoonish puff of smoke left curling where I had stood.

For the next two and a half hours I sped here and there and gave thumbs ups, offered pantomime advice on volume and projection, nodded, clapped, and most of all, kept moving. I realized that my friend had actually come to laugh, and not necessarily to lend support. I followed my choreographed plan and schedule to a T, and it turned out to be magnificent. I was completely on edge and in the moment when the last recitation took place. We all reconvened to carpool back to our school. It would be a week before the results were tallied and communicated, and we had an opportunity for a hopeful afterglow while waiting for the parents to come to claim their children at our school. Each kid had a point he wanted to make, either about how the preparation matched the delivery, or how the nervous energy became an asset during the recitation, or some other memorable thing to take with him to the next year’s event. The kids felt that they had accomplished something, and they felt a closer association with the written and spoken word. Subsequently, I too felt that I had accomplished something.

When the last kid was in the last car on the way home, my friend pointed out that he had the boards on his roof rack, and that his girlfriend was working a double. He suggested that we catch some waves out at Diamond Head and then get a few beers and some food at Aloha Tower. I was ready to make the most of the rest of my Saturday, and between sets we talked about the teaching profession. We decided that there would always be something to complain about, but what motivated us as teachers would never change. He pointed out that I looked like I was caught in an unrealistic circumstance on a bad sit-com, and when I laughed at that, he asked me seriously, how much money it would take to get me to behave like that if I were working at any other job? I laughed again, because there really wasn’t any other answer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

How's Your Head?

My memory is starting to fade, but I can remember this incident pretty clearly even now. I had been COS’d from the Peace Corps and I was on a plane leaving London and heading for Boston. I didn’t do any traveling in between leaving Africa and going back to America, which is not the norm. Most people take some time and go somewhere to spend some of their readjustment allowance and get back into the American head. I had a sunburn, a straw hat, and a battered dashiki when I left Ghana on the Lorry Airways plane, and I had the same get-up when I joined the flight in London. I have to admit I was a little put off by all of the clean white European people in what appeared to me to be fancy clothes.

I was sitting in the very back of the plane where you could still smoke, and I was savoring one of the last of my Ghanaian cigarettes. An obviously American guy sitting near me asked what I was smoking, and I gave him one. He looked a little bit like a hipster, and I asked him what he was doing in England. He hated the African cigarette and he said that he had been working with a rock band that was touring Europe. I asked who it was, and he said it was Phish. I said that I had lived with guys at UMass who knew them, and he invited me forward to meet the rest of the band. I sat down after introductions and met the guys in the band. They had been touring with the Psychedelic Furs and had hated it. They found the fact that I was a returning Peace Corps volunteer to be fascinating. They had more questions for me than I had for them. Eventually I got to asking Trey for an autograph for my brother, who was a big fan. He asked me what to write and I said, “Hey Brother, how’s your head?” He looked at me funny, and I explained that we were known to have a few now and again and that the funny question the next morning was always, “How is your head?” He understood it, and wrote it down. I put it in my pocket.

When we landed in Boston we were herded through the gates and I caught sight of my mother, sister, and brother waiting for me. I tapped Trey on the shoulder and pointed out my brother. He wished me luck and got on with getting his stuff through customs. I got through the line and caught my mother’s eye, but she didn’t recognize me. I guess I had changed a lot. When I tapped her on the shoulder and stood right in front of her she recognized me. My sister and brother had been looking for me in separate areas and we all got together to head out to the car.

In the car on the way home my brother said that the weirdest thing had happened to him. That he was in the airport looking for me and he saw a guy that he could have sworn was Trey from Phish, perched up on a light stand looking around. When Trey saw Brother staring at him he looked right at him and said, “Hey, Brother, how’s your head?” I said that that reminded me, that Trey wanted to give something to him, and I handed him the autograph.

He thought that was funny as hell, and so did I.

Vanity of Vanities!

My older daughter lost another of her front teeth. The upper one, and the one right next to it has come loose and has moved a bit toward the empty space of its neighbor. She is a snaggle tooth little kid, and she is really very cute. She was talking about the performers she sees on the Disney channel and was ranking them in order of importance to her. She mentioned one girl's name and said, "She is my favorite singer." And then she quickly recanted and said, "Well, no, you're really my favorite singer, and she is my next favorite, and then..." I didn't get it at first. I asked her to repeat herself twice and she did, even providing further explanation. Sometimes when we are in the car on long trips we will sing sing along songs, or if I have the time and inclination to pick up the old guitar we sing some of my old favorites together. I never thought of myself as a good singer, but I have enjoyed singing along with the radio or in the shower or what have you. I know for sure I am not as good a singer as the girls on the Disney channel, but I got a real sense of satisfaction from my daughter telling me that I was her favorite singer. This satisfaction comes from knowing that she did not make her decision based on precision of the notes or the quality of the tone, but rather that she made her decision based on the fact that our shared time and enjoyment was the true "harmony". I had always hoped that my kids wouldn't be so shallow and would have the strength of heart to cherish what is truly worthwhile in this world, but I did not know, and still do not know, how to teach that. The source of my satisfaction is the fact that she gets it. She is an honest to goodness real, good kid.