Teaching poetry to my students is always my favorite lesson of the school year. Maybe it is the fact that poetry ties so closely to music lyrics, which they are obsessed with, but it is always the unit that they enjoy the most. After months of research papers, grammar practice, and reading the classics, students just come alive when we start poetry. Kids that were checked out, check back in. Students who rarely talk in class, begin to express themselves. A little bit of magic happens with poetry, magic that can not be tabulated via data and Excel spreadsheets.
Poetry deals with strong emotion and acts as a catharsis for many of my students. I do not give students subjects for their poetry. I instead introduce them to different figurative language techniques and ask them to apply those techniques to free-verse poems of their own. Students practice with simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, symbolism, imagery, and alliteration.
Many of my female students, with no prompting from me, wrote about body image in their poems. It is clear that it is a constant and pressing issue in so many young women’s lives.
There is a stranger in front of me
Her hair is messy, split ends growing.
A scar in between her eyes
Lips looking kinda rough
Acne across her face.
Her smile is not the biggest or the brightest.
I look at her body shape
She’s not the most fit
She should really consider going on a diet
And even though I see her and talk to her every day,
I still don’t really know her.
I hate the thought of not knowing who she is.
I finally have enough and
look in her eyes and break the mirror.
This girl writes about not truly knowing herself, about only identifying herself via her flaws and blemishes. She writes in a tone that expresses hostility toward herself and the way she looks. The last line especially exhibits this hostility when she chooses to break the mirror rather than look at herself. If you could see this girl, you would see a shy, bright, young lady with long, black hair and the cutest dimples. How sad that she cannot see that same girl when she looks in her broken mirror.
This next poem, written by another girl, portrays some of the same sentiments. Students were asked to write using personification for this poem. This student chose her bathroom scale as her subject.
160 pounds the scale says.
You’re getting too fat.
Start eating less.
120 pounds the scale says.
What is wrong with you?
You’re fat, eat less.
100 pounds the scale says.
You´re too heavy get off me.
Eat less it says.
Still too fat.
Eat less to be
You´re too fat the scale yells at me.
It says to eat less.
If you could see the girl who wrote this poem, you would see a thin, introverted kid. A girl who loves Twenty-One Pilots, and whose face lights up whenever one of their songs appears on the classroom playlist. She is beautiful with her dyed multi-colored hair and chipped fingernail polish. But she doesn’t see it. She carries the weight of her family’s dramas and unbearable expectations. Tragically, just days before the end of the school year, her step-sister committed suicide, compounding the already unbearable weight she is buckling under. Her bathroom scale is the only thing in her life she feels she is able to control.
This next poem is also written by a girl, a girl who lights up the room with her individual style and grace. She is tall and lean and doesn’t realize how the other girls in class probably wish they could look like her.
J- you are beautiful
You really truly are
But only when you’re the perfect weight.
You wear nice clothes
And your makeup has no flaw.
Anything less is unacceptable.
Once you fix everything wrong about yourself,
that plastic surgery will be necessary too.
If you truly love yourself, then maybe someone will love you too.
Maybe in a couple years when you have the body like her.
I compare you to her and her and her because you’re not like her.
Your grades are C’s why can’t your chest be too?
Why can’t you be more like her?
How she complains that she is fat and you get mad.
(I love it when you get mad you start to rant.)
They’re wrong, you’re right. Beautiful……
Idiot take your own advice!
But it’s hard to
when I whisper in your ear and call you flat
You’re the l in flat
the wall from class
and the stick from that branch- never the pear.
Incapable of loving, you’re unable to commit
How he walked away, and never stayed.
Your daddy issues push them away.
And you stay looking stupid using your heart instead of your brain
But J- i’ll stay here until the end or until I make you end your end.
Because that’s what I do, I whisper in your ears
And tell you the truth.
She is not only obsessed with her weight, but also her breast size. How sad, the line “Your grades are C’s why can’t your chest be too?” showing a girl who has been led to believe that her breast size is more valuable than her GPA. How sad, a girl who thinks she is not capable of being loved. A girl who knows she has ‘daddy issues’ and that those issues are defining her self-worth. She is 14 years old. Much too young to be feeling this way. Much too young to be thinking of plastic surgery and suicide as the only way to gain love from a source that cannot (or will not) give it.
It is not just the girls who feel unbearable pressure to fit in and conform to society’s standards. Boys feel the pressure as well. That pressure is compounded for my students who are struggling with sexual identity. This next poem is written by a boy who is experiencing that struggle.
Impure thoughts in my head
Looking at something I shouldn’t
The conservatives tell me I’m wrong
The religions tell me it’s not too late
“What you’re feeling is a sin”
How could you be so sure?
After all, it feels good
Looking across the room
Who just so happens to
Cause the stark divide in the nation.
Is it so impure to love?
Is it so impure to want?
I mean, this is okay, right?
Looking at that boy
This boy equates his attraction to another boy with a massive divide. He, unlike his peers, does not feel a simple, innocent crush on a classmate, a feeling that so many fourteen-year-olds feel. He feels guilt. He feels pressure. Society is telling him that he is wrong, that his feelings are wrong. He is a boy up against a wall of disapproval. He, like the girls in the poems before him, is struggling to conform to the person he is told he should be. And, as a result, he is denying a huge part of himself.
Another issue present in many of my students’ poems is the issue of racism. Again, these topics came up with no prompting from me. The poem below was intended to be a simile poem, but it ended up being so much more.
Will I make it home
or will I be convicted and sentenced for life?
All of my life has been a fight
being made difficult because my skin’s not white.
Overcoming many obstacles
it’s like I’m climbing a hill.
Will I make it home or will I be killed?
Will I make it home or will my mom cry
because her middle son was left on the street to die?
These are the things
I think about when I’m alone.
will I be murdered or will I make it home?
Another one of my students chose the topic of racism for his poem as well. He was working with the techniques of imagery and onomatopoeia. Just like the boy before him, his poem ended thinking of his mother.
Am I a robber because of my skin color?
Walking down the street, feeling lost and alone.
Do you have to be a shapeshifter
to get around in this town?
I make it to the store, walking down the aisle.
I’m being followed, thinking in my head,
am I a suspect of some sort?
Rushing to the checkout, breathing
hard, fearing I will never see another day.
Blue, red, and white lights flashing through the glass window.
Running to the door, making it outside.
Boom boom boom! I fall to the ground,
closing my eyes, thinking
what will my mom say….
How powerful that these two boys wrote such similar poems, even though they were in separate classes. Both boys are tall, African-American males. Both look like they could be in their early twenties, rather than their mid-teens. And both exhibit an overwhelming fear of the police. They are aware that, due to the appearance of adulthood, they are in danger. But, under the facade of manhood, you really have two kids. Two boys who love their mothers and worry about what might happen to them if they are ever the target of police questioning. How overwhelmingly powerful and sad.
It isn’t just African-American males who feel this discrimination. Girls feel it as well.
I am not white I am not black I am a person of color
I am red green and blue
I am the darkest shades and the brightest hues
The color of my skin should not define me
What about my character or my empathy
Why is it that when I meet someone they look at me full of disgust
As if when I walk by them they will combust
Why do people think I don’t want an education
Or that all I care about is vacation
Much to your surprise none of that is true
I don’t know what it will take to get it through
But I don’t match any of those descriptions
After all, I’m not black or white I am a person of color.
This girl is acutely aware that, in some people’s eyes, she is only seen for the color of her skin. The girl who wrote this poem is brilliant, with a reading level of a college student. She is a talented writer and a gifted student. Her line, why do people think I don’t want an education, exposes the appalling frustration of being discriminated against based on color. How infuriating to be so bright and to know that, to some, you will only ever be seen through the eyes of ignorance and bigotry.
Racism and Sexism are not the only topics broached via my students’ poetry. Some others talked about discrimination based on mental and emotional issues. The next poem was written by one of my students who is diagnosed with autism.
I am not a joke.
My life says I am alone,
It has no reason
to reach what I want.
Is it disability, or am I just the awkward outcast
because I am not sure how to make people laugh at my jokes?
Joy in a smile that wants to come across my face.
Am I wrong to desire a little change?
A turtle that wants speed,
A broken piece of society that is denied joining the public.
This boy speaks about feeling apart from his school community. He feels alone and wishes he could fit in. He refers to himself as a broken piece of society and feels awkward around his peers. In reality, he is a soft-spoken, sweet boy. The kids love him and many have no idea about his diagnosis. But, for him, his diagnosis defines him.
Another topic that came up often in my students’ poetry was the topic of depression. Depression, like autism, is considered a mental illness and it can be just as alienating and frustrating for a teenager trying to navigate their first year of high school.
I am not depressed
I can still smile at pretty things
And laugh when jokes are funny
I can still talk to people
And enjoy nice days
But when I go inside
When I’m alone
There is something broken
And I fall into a sadness so sweet
That it engulfs me
I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see
And the tears always fall
When I’m falling asleep
And I miss something
That doesn’t exist
I am not depressed
I’ve just been sad for awhile
But I can still find the light
I can still smile.
I ended this blog with this poem for a reason. This poem shows hope. It shows the spirit of all the kids featured in this post. They are all capable of finding the light. They come to my class with a huge smile on their faces, ready to face what is ahead of them. They are sweet, and innocent, and filled with promise. They have taught me more than I will ever be able to teach them. And they will be missed.
Oh my good gracious. I salute you for giving these students a safe place to express thoughts and feelings they so desperately need to get out. I doubly salute you for being the educator that looks past the test scores, the grades, the standards, and measures each and every student by their own metric. You are a once in a lifetime type of teacher, and the world of education would be made all the better if there were more like you.
LVZ, the passion you have for teaching the whole person is palpable and infectious. My soul was moved reading these works. Not only because of the weightiness (literal and metaphorical) of the subject matter, but because I had to remind myself these words were written by people in their early teenage years. These poems express feelings and thoughts that sound as if they were accumulated over a lifetime. It is heartbreaking when you stop and viscerally understand these words are from souls that have been broken, even before they have taken flight. This poetry lesson may have been the first time for some, they have really been able to set down their protective shell, and allow someone into the inner sanctum of their closely held secrets. I do not know these kids, but I have been personally touched by their words. I was shaken by and made deeply proud of those girls for having the courage to give voice to an experience that thrives and depends on secrecy.
You have done a marvelous job, and my heart is bursting with pride and love. I leave you with the words of one of my favorite poets Emily Dickinson, which I feel perfectly describes you and your approach:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
My utmost respect and my warmest regards to you, dear friend.
Thank you. And thank you for writing right along with me. Your words inspire me. Every. Single. Day.