When the Bell Rings
by Amber Flame
In the very act of creating and teaching a new lesson plan each week for the same group of students, I have learned how important it is to document successful and not-so-successful writing prompts and activities. It feels as if the kids have me scrambling, trying to find a new handhold or foothold in their imaginations, which are, for the most part, shut to the idea of poetry. Never have I worked with a group of students so unprepared to think of themselves and to act as writers.
I often work with the kids who’ve been marked as the “bad” ones. Once again, I am in a classroom full of them, and it’s not that they are all bad; in fact, most of them are very quiet. Shy, even. But for every four quiet, shy, struggling students, there’s a troublemaker, a clown, someone who thinks they are the first student to dare to write about drug use or sex in a poetry class. These are the ones that are easy to get. Once you convince them that if they write it down, they can then share it in all its inappropriate-for-school glory, they tend to be all for it. They relish the chance to push the boundaries. The challenge then becomes how to convince them to put some thought and effort into it, how to make it truly clever and irreverent, not just inappropriate and vulgar.
But the quiet ones—I am intrigued by the quiet ones. Having never been one for long periods of silence myself, I am convinced that those who can hold their tongue have something to say that I want to know. I eagerly wait for them to turn in long handwritten pages, epic and eloquent laments about the angst of a teenager. Instead, I get half-written words and unfinished thoughts, pages and pages of them. It seems that some people are silent because they truly have nothing to say. I have realigned my expectations, and get excited instead when something – anything – captures their attention and imagination and makes them think more deeply about the words they use.
The words they use tell me so much about these children. The words remind me that they are children, still, despite their best intentions to act grown. They are fragile, and they have so much to learn. And at the same time, they are so much stronger than anyone should expect a 16 year old to be, having experienced loss and suffering that I often can’t comprehend. I am inspired myself to write poetry about them, to share with others what they don’t or won’t share themselves, the lessons they could teach us about what it means to be human, and how one learns to be human. These are the words I wish they’d write down, so I could find a way to publish them and get them out into the world.
It’s easy to pay attention to what seems the most tragic, the most broken. Not the stories we’ve heard before, the ones we blush to shine spotlights at, because they are raw and vulnerable but they are still living, still limping along, licking their wounds. My attention returns to the loud, obnoxious kids that wince and avoid my eyes when they say something that matters to them. They are the ones who walk along the edge of night and death, spit in the face of danger with the bravado—and stupidity—of teenaged boys everywhere. These are the ones who aren’t writing it down, not the real stuff. They are running from it, knowing it is snuffling at their backs. I want to hear the stories of the ones who know they are going to die soon. I want to hear the poem about opening arms to embrace the death that is inevitable because it is the path they are choosing. The path they claim as if they have no choice.
I no longer hope that this art-making class will somehow turn them aside. Instead, I choose poems and prompts and mentor texts that I hope will broaden their imaginations of what life can be. I stop worrying about whether I am teaching them enough literary devices and instead I watch their faces, look for the tell that says this line or that turn of phrase got to them. I manipulate and massage the words into matches that I strike against those little pieces of sentences and unarticulated ideas, against their exuberance to talk and talk and talk; in that moment of sparking, I shove the page under their fingers and hope that they write enough—just enough—to remember the jewel of a thought they just had. And I forgive them when I find my carefully thought-out and neatly marked responses to their pieces of poems littering the floor around the trashcan when the bell rings.