A Spoon / Can Hold / Wishes, / Thoughts, / and Frosted Flakes.
by Erin Malone
We’ve all heard that axiom of Robert Frost’s: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” We get a charge when startled out of the usual pattern of our thoughts; the day turns just a little when the right words find us. How oppressive it is to face a heap of unfolded laundry or be held hostage in line at the grocery store. But listen, while we’re doing the dishes, let me tell you what Lila S., my fifth grade student this year at Whittier Elementary, wrote in her poem called “My Country”:
. . .If you choose not to come
I will not be lonely
I learned Bird and French. . .
I also acquired an English accent
Yesterday I had a tea party
With an elephant
Under the shade of a lilac tree
And a month ago
I danced the tango
With a flamingo
Under the light of a sunset
That is walking toward night
A sunset walking toward night! “Bird” as a language! There’s so much to salute when considering the imagination and expression of these young writers. Here’s Anna K.’s “Spoon”:
And frosted flakes.
Is a toy for
A pit for
For an elephant to crush.
This year we studied Charles Simic, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Pablo Neruda, among others. We listened to music and created our own landscapes. We learned iambic meter by feeling our heartbeats and stamping the rhythm of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) and lines from Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham. We had a lot of fun: the kids wrote poems about polka-dotted eggs, pet dinosaurs, cheeseburgers and countries full of candy (they are often hungry). But they are thoughtful, too. Here’s a poem by fourth grader Oliver C.:
I wish I was a vacuum
To vacuum up my fears,
I wish I was an incinerator
To incinerate my fears.
I wish I was a green garbage truck
To take them far away,
I wish I was a bulldozer
To hide them in the dirt.
Emma I. wrote these lines in her poem “A Jar”:
I hold lots of things inside me
Like smooth diamonds
And rough oatmeal
But mostly I like the smooth rice grains touching
My sides as they get
Poured into me
In the sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Allen knew I liked to write and encouraged me by reading anything I gave her: poems, plays, stories and comic strips. And in this, my first year teaching children, I remembered her and tried to emulate her. If the writing by these kids surprised and delighted me, well, so did the kids. I was rewarded with spontaneous hugs, drawings and bookmarks, and a quiet thank you from a student who usually didn’t say much. One fourth grader, Alec Y., rushed to me one day to say that he’d had to write a persuasive essay, and did I know what his topic was? “Why we should have poetry all year long!”
On my last day with the fifth graders, a friend of mine happened to send me an interview with W.S. Merwin. I shared part of it with them: “I think poetry always comes out of what you don’t know. And with students I say, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen, above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every bird and every dog and everything that you hear. But know all of your knowledge is important, but your knowledge will never make anything. It will help you to form the things, but what makes something is something that you will never know. It comes out of you. It’s who you are.”
What a gift it was to spend time with these students, to discover a little bit about who they are and who they are becoming. I celebrate their mysteries: of childhood, spontaneity, and the act of creating. And I thank them, these smart, daring, funny, honest people who surprised me in so many ways.