"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dig and Be Dug

If you had told me back when I started teaching full time, almost ten years ago, that I would be in a room with 200 teachers screaming--screaming, I tell you--over poetry--yes, poetry; that fellow students reciting poetry would trigger an ear-splitting demonstration of enthusiasm, I would ask for a sample of whatever you were ingesting.

It happened last Friday, April 27, at American History High.  We held what we called a Poetry Slam (although it was not truly a Slam, particularly as it was non-competitive) in our main auditorium (well, "cafetorium" actually), with 20 poets from our Public Speaking classes and an audience of mostly juniors and seniors.  The subjects covered everything on students' minds -- love, violence, drugs, identity, pregnancy, broken families, broken friendships, beauty, truth, all that good poetry-type stuff.

I don't deserve much credit for this.  My students live in a world with few tools for them to combat their circumstances.  They have been brought up to understand how important words are and what they can do.  History has taught them the jiu jitsu of using the words of our Founding Fathers to achieve goals that those long-ago limited men could never have dreamed of.  They see doors opened and walls collapsed with words.  We are a nation based on an idea and a promise rooted in that idea, so that for all the tanks and bombs and mighty mountains and amber waves of grain, our true nationhood is one of words.

And they love their new word-tools.  I learned this year to stop fighting the phones and use my own jiu-jitsu and incorporate them.  My wife talks about being in the Look It Up Club back in her school days.  Now every student with a smart phone can be part of that club.  And if they don't have one, their friend they sit with probably does.  If I don't give them something to do with those phones, they'll be texting.  Think about that -- they'll be writing.  Once our predecessors bemoaned the advent of cheap telephone service as the herald of the end of writing.  Now young people can't stop writing; texting, IM'ing, blogging, even e-mailing (although that is very old-fashioned).  As long as it isn't official, approved or assigned, they will do that writing.

Not to mention that students today have grown up entirely in the age of rap, in which the most talented rhymers are raking in seven-figure incomes, a fact that must be making Robert Browning and John Keats absolutely furious in their graves, thinking of the bucks they coulda scored in their day.  (Robert Burns even wrote pop tunes!)

So perhaps it was predictable, that students would go wild for the wordsmiths, who stir sound and sense into a new Newark gumbo all our own.  Special props, however, to one of our most gifted performers in the school, who capped his poetry recitation, with a walk down the auditorium aisle, flower in hand, to ask his long-time squeeze to the prom.

The explosion in the room for that exquisite romantic gesture -- well, there are no words.

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