Mad Cloudy Happy Sunshine
by Samar Abulhassan
Orca! Orca! of every ocean
how did you get your fearless motion?
with your leathery skin, black and white
who could question your endless might?
-Joanna (middle school)
For nearly two months, I have had the privilege of visiting the Hutch School, which serves patients and their family members (hailing from “every ocean” and around the globe) receiving treatment at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Twice a week, I offer writing experiments to three classes made up of kids (6-18) who have fallen together for a while. Hutch provides a learning refuge, a creative and exuberant environment for kids who are away from their home school for an indefinite length of time … anywhere from a week to several months. You don’t land as a student at Hutch unless you’ve been affected by the reality of illness – your own, or more likely, that of a close family member. Before I began this assignment I wondered how the kids, teachers and staff held the weight of this truth. But entering the Hutch’s bright, open space has been consistently life-affirming. I find that there’s a raw edge and an overall willingness to work with small and big changes. This seems to keep everyone alert, appreciative and rarely without a dose of healthy perspective.
Even in the relatively short span of semester, teachers often have the luxury of developing relationships with students, of creating a curriculum that builds on itself. There is some kind of beginning, middle and end. But at Hutch, classes shift and reshuffle fairly constantly, and each session, each moment holds past, present and future.
Here, when you arrive or during special events, it is customary to introduce yourself with, “My name is __, I am __ years old and the patient in my family is __.” Links of support and understanding seem to quietly sprout as we get to work on the day’s writing experiment. Writing is such a personal process, and in my mind, a vital way to encourage a student to get to know themselves better, to find refuge on the page, to be dramatic, or tired or sad.
Depending on the length of the (family member’s) treatment program as well as other factors, I might interact with a student at Hutch once or twice, or several times. Being there, you can’t help but consider the role of relationship to your immediate environment and to the people who have assembled in this way for today. Today. How wholeheartedly will you give yourself? It’s easy to sometimes to dismiss the “transitory” times in our lives as insignificant or as a discomfort needing to be vanished. Waiting for the bus, sitting in an airport, navigating an in-between period between jobs or cities. Yet the limbo spaces often feel just as or even more potent than other times – take away your favorite sweater or access to your best friend or the sanctuary of your hometown or bedroom, and something sharp and vivid suddenly gets exposed. There is a larger potential for experiencing awe and wonder, a chance to reinvent yourself in your new environment, whether this process feels conscious or not. I think this is true for students, staff and visitors.
Aware of a child’s temporary’s stay and compassionate to the challenge a sudden move poses to a young person, everyone becomes a bit more helpful and genuine. How do we work with jarring circumstances – and what does this have to do with the teaching of writing? Experiments with language, with creating conditions for students to create meaning, to know themselves better, offer a potentially meaningful bridge to connection. The heart of my approach at Hutch has been to create lessons to inspire joy, attention, gratitude and understanding, whether through inking a letter to the Sun or a poem spelling out their wishes. “I wish I could climb up a drive-through tree” (Holly). I hope to help students trust themselves and also to get to know the secret parts of themselves a little better. To know they don’t have to write in the same way they wrote yesterday, and to admit to the pleasures of being alive. “We turn counterclockwise and for the first time in my life I hear the wind whistle past my helmet,” wrote Talmage (middle school) about riding on the back of a motorcycle. To make room for whatever is stirring that day or seeming contradictions: “mad cloudy happy sunshine,” (Gabe, middle school).
I want kids to know that writing is a powerful act. During one session, a piece of burnt toast in the Hutch school kitchen set off the fire alarm, and as we waited outside for the firefighters to clear our reentry, I joked to middle school student Tyler that it was his luminous dragon poem, penned that day, that had summoned the fire trucks.
With the younger kids, particularly since kindergarteners share a classroom with third graders, I strive for a wild simplicity. A bit of the work we do together is to appreciate the sound, texture and color of words and sensory experience. Regardless of how this group recombines, the kids seem steadily willing to take strange and wonderful leaps, to see a pineapple as “an exploding thorn ax fruit,” (Max), or to make elegant and spirited declarations, “I am knight alive, the little boy sang,” (Nick) and “I am lemon, I am cherries, I am just as excited as trees covered with bees.” (Kayla). Happily, these kids know how to appreciate their inner richness and beauty, regardless of their language and writing development. “Can you spell ‘world’ for me?” a boy asked me last week, and I saw it as a sweet startle, as the “world” offered me a new welcome.
“I wake up with a start on the cold, hard sand. I get up and walk on the beach under the paling stars of morning into day, celebrating myself and the world,” writes Bianca. A fourth-grader, Bianca is one of many young poets at Hutch who is particularly inspired by natural beauty and being pleasantly lost in experience. “I lose track of time, it’s lunch! I walk up the hill, I eat off the berry bush and nut tree.” The Hutch routinely offers students excursions around town and into gardens, and there is a sense of wonder being cultivated through all art forms and the simple act of noticing.
Working with the high school kids, who often have siblings in the younger classes, has been uniquely vibrant, as they sometimes seem to be carrying an extra sense of responsibility. They have both the gift and the burden of expressing their experience in a more sophisticated way. They are incredibly generous, and their writing shows this. “All the majestic places I’ve been I give them to you,” wrote Alex, who intuitively always knew how to make room for light and dark. “The coconuts fall quickly seeming like they don’t want to stay and chat and the seashells slide slowly away,” she wrote about a lone and sometimes lonely palm tree. Mariah, a high school student who recently left Hutch to attend her new “permanent” school, shared one day that their home in Alaska was being “packed and moved” to a new town to accommodate her father’s new military assignment. Her family would not be returning to conduct this move themselves. This news evoked potent images in me, imagining the contents of rooms being gathered by the hands of strangers, leaving lingering the hues and marks of experience. I wondered about the event of this home being boxed invisibly, which to me, now seemed in another way, most visible, quite poignant and palpable. If physical “homes” can vanish in an instant, how do we make the writing moment count the most – how do we encourage students to recognize the richness of their inner resources? How do we help them connect to the seemingly invisible but real connections to themselves and the places and people they love?
I was lucky enough to spend a few teaching weeks with Mariah, who seemed to know how to connect with the still parts inside herself – all while dedicating her efforts, “Here take this piece of writing I’ve written,” she wrote, “I’m giving you the whispering wind.” Always voicing and writing about her love for her younger sister, Skylar, who is the patient in her family, Mariah knows how to tune in to the small sounds (“Skylar playing with the shades, Skylar singing along with her favorite show”) and a kind of wonder that stays intact amidst change. “The water doesn’t wash over its beauty,” she wrote of a seashell. “The sound is its home, people and sounds surround it, the sand covers it and it still lays there untouched, staying beautiful.”