What I Am Worth
At Cleveland (where I am in my second year of residency through the WITS program) high school in particular, I’ve seen three different students drop out in the past year and a half. Paige Vanderhoff, their language arts teacher, told me that her class – especially when i was teaching poetry on Tuesdays – was one of the only classes these students actually attended. So while I have no basis for saying that poetry saved their lives, I do know that they needed it.
A poem can, sometimes, if picked at the right time, make a student perk up and say, “hey, that’s about me. S/he’s talking about me.”
This is why I always bring in audio/video footage of the poems. So the students can hear the passion of the poet’s words and see the intensity on their faces – that THIS “poetry thing” is serious business. The performances that convey the same goal I convey to students – that SOMEONE needs to hear this, and this is the ONLY chance to reach them – are the ones i choose to use time and time again. There are two poems, in particular, that I consistently use which display excellence both in the imagery and craft of the writing, but also in the passion of the performance: “Shake the Dust” and “Frank Sinatra”
for the ones who are told to speak
only when you are spoken to, and then are never spoken to
speak every time you stand so you do not forget yourself
do not let a moment go by that doesn’t remind you
your heart beats 900 times a day
and that there are enough gallons of blood to make you an ocean
do not settle for letting these waves settle and for the dust to
collect in your veins
“Shake the Dust” is an excellent example of an anaphora poem, using repetition as a chant that takes the reader in deeper and different directions with each line, but it is also a call to arms for students who are “never spoken to,” to remind them of the magic that lies within them and to do something magical with it, that it is okay to be afraid but don’t allow that to silence or limit you either.
so grab this world by its clothespins
and shake it out again and again
and jump on top and take it for a spin
and when you hop off
shake it again
for this yours
make my words worth it
make this not just another poem i write
not just another poem like just another night that sits heavy above us all
walk into it
breathe it in!
let it crash through the halls of your arms
like the millions of years of millions of poets coursing like blood
pumping and pushing
making you live
shaking the dust
so when the world knocks at your front door
clutch the knob tight in your hands
and open on up
running forward into its widespread greeting arms
with your hands before you
fingertips trembling though they may be
Frank Sinatra by Katie Wirsing
The author brings to life a young boy named Jordan in this poem, with use of wondrously detailed imagery, simile and metaphor. Jordan is a 6 year old boy who despite serious odds stacked against him chooses to see the world through eyes of love and appreciation.
Jordan, who lives in a place…
where little boys learn too quickly what it means to be a man,
and men learn like dogs what it is to be afraid,
and people dress themselves in concrete and barbed wire.
Jordan, whose father is absent and whose mother is sick when he says sick means:
that his mom is afflicted with the worst four letters ever put next to one another.
The poem also addresses how we are affected by holding onto our pain if we make the choice to to do so when Jordan expresses the complex feelings he has for the father he’s never known through dance:
it takes every muscle in your body to wear resentment like armor
but jordan’s sporting nothing but ‘love me’
as he pop and locks out those feelings that make us feel weak
stopping only to say “Thank you – i know my dad would be proud”
In the midst of this maelstrom of strike after strike against him, the author paints a vivid picture of the light that continues to shine within this little boy and even inspires her:
Jordan lives like the heart is a weapon of mass destructionand kiddos gonna bleed all over you til you’re so covered in love you’ll forget what you ever dressed yourself in previouslyand i dance like the soul is a butterfly and i’m sprouting wings head to toeso, in our ways we teach each other things we never knew we know
In the discussions following the viewing of the “Frank Sinatra”, i always address the lines that deal with resentment and the line referring to the heart as a weapon of mass destruction, although the students almost without fail will point out these lines as their favorites or that stood out the most to them. The idea that holding on to anger, frustration and hatred can take a lot out of you is not one lost on the students. But, neither is the strange wonder of using the heart as a weapon of mass destruction except to employ love and make people forget the past. The possibility of such a thing fascinates them.
Both poems speak to the power of choice, choosing to looking for beauty even when the world slings nothing but ugly at us. To the choice to do more than just want better, but to believe that we deserve better and that the sacrifices are worth, at the bar minimum, trying to reach for more.
Through poetry, I found my innermost self and now, no one can choose the choices make. With support from all my teachers and friends I now know what I am worth..