April is National Poetry month — a thirty day celebration of poetic craft. It’s also when elders and writers like myself visit schools.
I’ve enjoyed many eye-opening experiences since becoming Poet Laureate of the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Readings, lectures, and public ceremonies have kept me busy. But the most significant experiences have been interactions inside classrooms.
Visiting schools is a catalyst to my memory. Though I’m past fifty years old, I have re-entered a world of lockers, pencil sharpeners, recess periods, class bells and hordes of students scurrying down the halls at the end of the day. All the energy and enthusiasm of high school, middle school and childhood fill four white-painted walls. Nowhere else could be so pregnant with potentiality.
Sometimes, I show the children this poem by E.E. Cummings’ “Seeker of Truth.” It reads:
seeker of truth
follow no path
all paths lead where
truth is here
Then I hit them with the question: What are you seeker of? Of truth? Of success? Of wealth? Or love? The answers will become the titles of their own poems. I have them find metaphors that describe the stops, starts and guideposts of their mission.
When I present poems inside classrooms with young children – still scrawling with No 2 pencils, learning to pronounce words and making their first forays using language tools – I realize that I am both an educator and a mirror.
I present poems the children have probably never seen before. The poems are like mirrors because as the children study and talk about them they begin to see their own struggles, interests and their intrinsic beauty reflected. They see undiscovered potential in themselves. And after they’ve read poems that let them glimpse a very special, emotional and empathetic part of themselves, they will want to write.
It’s my greatest treat when the students write. My mission is to instill a lasting memory of a day in school when standard curriculum and arts education intersected. Now in addition to having gained knowledge of what poetry can be, the students have their own poems — mirrors of their own experiences.
Some teachers and school administrators expect poetry lessons to reinforce traditional educational goals, like increasing vocabulary, training children to write complete sentences, or discern nouns, verbs and adjectives. To some, a visiting poet is just one tool to enhance their kids’ performances on tests that will measure the school’s success.
But I can testify from my own experiences visiting the schools – especially after interruptions to regular in-person schooling to help slow down the coronavirus – what they need today is inspiration.
Society’s foremost expectation is that public schools not fail. I understand, nobody can sustain belief in any element of society if we have fallen short of our obligation to the next generation. When schools are healthy, society is healthy.
To be healthy, public education in America needs an injection of inspiration. But our workers, businesses, and family caretakers that have suffered over the past two years of crisis need incentivization and inspiration, too. In spite of congress’ failure to pass Biden’s Build Back Better bill, we still to need to guarantee access to affordable child care. We need lower cost for prescription drugs. We need to permanently expand the Earned Income Credit and Child Tax Credit tax benefits to families with children. We need to better fund public schools and teachers. Next year, my home state of New Mexico will give all public school teachers a minimum $10,000 raise.
We need to act because the nation faces severe maladies during this still ongoing pandemic. The thing about poetry – my specialty – is that it can be one of those actions that rejuvenates the nation.
Poetry is a form of inspiration which is particularly able to enhance creativity, empathy and self-reflection. I believe that schoolchildren who have internalized those values will use them to resolve the nation’s problems in creative ways. These children will want to help others, because as ‘seekers of truth’, they have learned empathy. And because they fostered powerful imaginations, they will succeed.
And then, society wins. That’s going to be my lasting reward for bringing poetry to schools.