guest post written by Margo Perin, Sonoma County Network Coordinator
Guadalupe Elementary School, San Francisco
School Librarian: Sheila Harman
Poet-Teacher: Margo Perin
In October 2017, fires swept through Santa Rosa, where I live, with whole communities burned to ash and hundreds losing their homes and jobs in this brave new world of climate change. Unable to get out of my pajamas from grief and fear and temporarily dislocated in San Francisco, I volunteered a poetry class at an elementary school where I had done a residency in the past. Amidst the devastation, the only place to feel some sort of hope was with children being creative.
I introduced myself to the class of about thirty children as a poet-teacher who had taught at their school. I told them I had come to their classroom because, like a lot of people, I felt upset about the fires up north, which most of them had heard about.
“I love your school and I knew it would cheer me up to see you,” I said to the sea of inquisitive faces.
After a brief discussion of their experiences of bullying, on the request of the school librarian who had arranged for my session and a hot topic in schools across the country, partly in resistance to our bully-in-chief leading the charge, I led them through the creation of a collective poem. They were then instructed to write their own poems, choosing whether they wanted to work in pairs or by themselves.
One little boy got out of his seat and wandered off to the side of the room. He looked out of whack, fed up, and frustrated.
“I’m bored,” he said, refusing to look at me when I asked what was wrong.
“You don’t want to write about bullies?” I said.
“I hate poetry,” he said, scowling.
“Why don’t you write about what you’d rather be doing? Where would you rather be?”
He looked surprised, then hopped off to his desk.
When I went back to check on him, he had written:
I wrader bean helping My dad with trash then bean here doing these poem and watering my lemon tree so he dosint die and he lives
“I really like this,” I said, ignoring the misspellings. "I have a lemon tree, too, and I know what you mean." I was hoping it was still there when I got back to Santa Rosa, along with my home.
I leaned over his desk, pencil in hand. “I’m going to show you a trick to make it look like a poem. Read it out loud and every time you pause I’m going to put a line.”
I drew a slash at the top of his page. “Then you’re going to rewrite it and every time you see one of these, drop down to the next line.”
He read the poem aloud and I inserted the slashes, with which he then turned his poem into:
I wrader bean helping My dad with trash
then bean here doing these poem
and watering my lemon tree
so he dosint die
and he lives
The boy pointed to a picture of a minuscule lemon tree beneath his poem.
“Oh, you did a drawing, too, that’s great. Can I take a picture? I want to show my friends to cheer them up because everyone’s feeling bad right now.”
He nodded soberly. “Okay.”
“Will you read it to the class?”
He shook his head, eyes downcast.
“Can I read it? I think they’re really going to like it.”
He stayed still for a moment, considering my request. Then he looked up and said in a neutral tone, “I’ll read it.”
When it was time for the students to share, he came up to the front of the class and read out the poem he’d shown me, with a couple of revisions.
“I changed my poem,” he said, looking pleased as he passed me on the way back to his seat.
I nodded. “Yes, I heard that.”
“I took out poetry and put playing games,” he said more assertively to make sure I understood.
“Yes, I heard.”
“Because I like poetry.” He made a gesture for me to follow him to his desk. “Come and take a picture.”
“I already took one.”
“But I want you to take this one.” He indicated the revised version.
As I snapped the shot, I noticed that in addition to changing the words of the poem, he had drawn a second tree, larger than the first, and resplendent with lemons. Next to it stood a boy, pointing at it. Above the tree, next to the last word of his poem, “lives”, was a big smile.
At the end of the session, he held me back. “I want you to make a poetry book.”
“I might come back and work with you more and you can have your own poetry book with your poems in it,” I said. “I’m going to talk to your teacher about that.”
“No, your poetry book,” he said insistently.
“Okay,” I said. “I’d love to share it with you.”
He nodded and took out a textbook from inside his desk, preparing for his next class.