A Wire Through Clay

by Nicole Hardy

This morning, as I finished copying and stapling the anthologies of student work I’d collected from my second semester classes at Ballard High School, I couldn’t help but reflect on my first year of WITS residency.  There were definitely some frustrations, some lessons learned the hard way. Overall, though, I felt proud to be a teaching artist, and proud of my students and the work they produced—particularly in this second term, so many of my ninth graders chose to be brave in their writing.

As a tribute to these students, and in gratitude for this teaching opportunity, I offer some highlights of 2nd semester.

1.

Marie Howe.  I’ve had a mad poetry crush on Marie Howe for years—to have her in person, talking in my classroom, to teach her poems to my students, and to hear her read literally wrecked me all week, in the best way.

In class, we studied Howe’s poem “The Attic,” a poem about a sexually abusive father, which is also a poem in praise of the brother who built world where she could one day love a man.  I was so impressed with the maturity my students brought to the room that day, and particularly impressed with my student Siera, who wrote a poem in praise of her drug-addicted family—the people who taught her what not to do.  Siera was selected to introduce Marie Howe at Benaroya Hall, and I was one of those teachers we’ve all made fun of, breathless and beaming from the audience.  If you missed Siera’s poem that night, you can read it here:

Praise my family for teaching me what to avoid
Stay away from
Deny
Reject.
For showing me how they waste away
and the use of tools that kill.
Unable to resist the next high
the funeral that changed my life
I know better—
what the history of addiction
and my mother’s bouts of cotton fever
taught me to eschew
hate, ignore:
shooting up, snorting, smoking.
Praise my aunts and uncles
I watch them sicken and wither
feel the agony of their self-hatred
huddled on their beds
high as the moon.
Praise my predecessors
who have taught me what not to do.            
-by Siera Wilson
 
2. I love that WITS teachers inspire their colleagues as much as they do their students. This year’s teacher reading was themed ‘works in progress;’ each of us was invited to share aloud what we were currently working on. In November, I was hard at work on a personal essay I never intended to publish. But after encouragement from Rachel Kessler, Erin Malone, Peter Mountford, and Rebecca Hoogs, among others, I decided to submit it to The New York Times—on a lark.  My essay got picked up, and sparked interest from agents and editors. Five months later, I have a book deal, and my writing career has branched in a new, terrifying, entirely unexpected direction.

I got the call telling me that my book had sold while I was in front of my first period WITS class—I hung up the phone and burst into joyful tears shouting, dreams do come true, kids! They of course thought I’d lost my mind, but I will be forever and ever grateful for the encouragement and support of the WTIS community.

3. Adler was one of my silent students; he spent most of the semester hidden in the hood of his sweatshirt.  I wasn’t sure he heard anything I’d said all term, and he did not as a rule take risks with his assignments—until we wrote poems about where we’re from, using the idea of ‘from’ as an emotional state as much as a physical or geographical place.  I’d been teaching and re-teaching beginnings and endings—the concrete image to capture us in the beginning, and the one to resonate like pondwater after a rock in the ending lines.

Adler wrote a poem called, “Call of the Dead,” that stunned me in its first and last lines.

I’m from the ghost inside me
trying to find my mother
I’m from the hope of finding
the meaning of life
I am from watching all the children
enjoy a childhood I never had
I am from the stranger
known as my guardian
I am from pain
which is all I feel
I am from music
which helps channel
my emotions
I am from lacrosse
which drives me to live
I am from death
from which I was born
-by Adler Wiskerchen
 
4. My “light bulb moment” with Katie is one of my favorites of the year.  While preparing her poem for the anthology, she wanted to write a love poem about her boyfriend—a typical kind of poem for a high school girl, and her language was also following a predictable path.  When she wrote, “his gaze cut me like a knife,” I said the same thing I’d been preaching all term.  Give me something I don’t expect.   Two minutes later, I returned to her desk to read, “his gaze cut me like a wire through clay.” A wire through clay, I thought.  Now that’s a simile.  

***

Thank you WITS, for these highlights large and small, and for challenging me as a writer and a teacher.

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