THE ART OF WORRY AND COURAGE
Writing Poetry with Children and Teens at Seattle Children’s Hospital
by Ann Teplick
When I worry, I chew my fingernails, practice hanging spoons from my nose (I used to be the family champ), and wonder if I’m ever going to fall asleep again.
When I worry, the world drips from chartreuse to blasé, eggs taste like rust, and the day barks like the dog that cannot get the squirrel.
When I worry, I turn to poetry. To read and write it. The thankfulness of concision in a time when my mind can only handle baby steps of anything. It’s the way I access and express my jumble. Or just mess around with sound and rhythm. It’s the way I make sense of the world.
I write poetry with children and teens at Seattle Children’s hospital. It’s an honor I share with poet Sierra Nelson—she, on Thursdays in palliative care, and me on Wednesdays with the Education Department. It’s an incredible project that is growing to offer in-house readings, anthologies, and displays of poetry and art on the walls—quite the collaboration with teachers, teaching coaches, the art therapist, staff, and nurses.
My day at Children’s is spent in the hospital classroom; the inpatient psychiatric unit; and at the bedside of patients in dialysis, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and units that are home to those with many other medical conditions.
The children, teens, and I write about our lives. We believe in story—ours, and those of others. We believe we have important things to say, and that the world needs our voices. Our words are compelling, evocative, tender, and honest.
We write poems that explore hopes for the near and far future. Poems about love and heartbreak. Poems about our silly bones, what makes us laugh. The asparagus we would never eat. Our design for a perfect world. Blessings for those whom we love. Blessings for ourselves. We write poems about our names, our heritage, our secrets. Advice poems, such as how to deal with a kidney transplant. Sassy attitude poems. Poems about emotions and how they rock us off the planet. We personify ID bands and IVs. CT scans. Medicines and MRIs—which soothes the edge of their scariness. We write about our dogs, our kittens, our fuzzy slippers, and the first thing we’re going to eat when we finally go home. Pot roast. Spare ribs. Pizza. No tofu, please.
But back to Worry. Worry is palpable in each of the writers I work with. In some, it’s nested and hushed. In others, it’s on the batter’s plate, blistered and screaming to swing. We muster the courage to name them, and then we write them, these flutters of the unknown.
Facing the unknown, knowing there is so much that cannot be predicted, takes a lot of courage. At Seattle Children’s Hospital, courage is the pulse that out-strides the worry. It is muscled with resilience, and a model of inspiration that I often find hard to articulate.
Which brings me to the roles of worry and courage in the life of a teaching artist. Many of the stories we hear are difficult, harsh, frightening, complex, and terribly sad. We’re human, we worry, we try to stand tall. We hope our facilitation of self-expression will brighten a light in someone’s life, in some way, of some voltage.
Below is a sampling of Worry and Courage poems from students at Seattle Children’s Hospital. I’ve peppered a few notes in-between—my observations, surprises, smiles, and remembrances.
I AM WORRIED ABOUT EVERYONE (an excerpt)
There’s a baby on the other side of the room
not even a week old
who is back in the hospital
right after being born.
He arrived five days ago.
His name is N.
His blood sugar is low.
The girl down the hall
has kidney problems, too,
and they want to move her biopsy
to when I’m scheduled for surgery tomorrow.
I’m mostly worried about the people here
at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
There are sick people,
a lot sicker than me.
Some might not ever get better.
It’s scary for them
and it’s also scary for me
because all the children here
have something wrong with them.
They are so, so sick
and they didn’t do anything to deserve it.
This middle-school writer was shy and barely audible, but showed no hesitation in expressing the weight on her mind.
A group poem by six middle-school writers
Courage has red curly hair
tied high in a ponytail.
She’s as strong as an oak tree.
She skips down the sidewalk
and jumps into puddles.
She wears red and white cotton
polka dot pajamas, and her eyes
are as green as mountains.
When Courage speaks, she says
“Hah! Walk tall! Continue
although it may be as hard
as a rock. Stay strong. Move on.
Keep moving forward.”
I love the wildness of the “red curly hair tied high in a ponytail.” I love how this group jumped into personification by using their imaginations. The jumping into puddles (maybe jumping into the unknown?), getting wet. And oh those polka dots.
Courage is wearing nothing
but his underwear to show his bravery.
Courage has rainbow-colored hair
because he isn’t afraid.
When Courage speaks, he says, “LOL.”
Courage is obsessed with talking fast.
As Courage looks you in the eye,
he says his feelings assertively.
I love this middle-school writer’s fast-talking Courage. Maybe fast is the device to out-race our fears? And the boldness of Courage to look you in the eye, fair and steady, and hold it there, unafraid to unleash emotions.
A group poem by three high-school writers
The smells of fear—
A vat of blood.
A field of cow manure.
IV fluids and a hospital bed.
The sounds of fear—
Screams from people
realizing their nightmares
have come true.
A siren burning through the night.
Flesh being ripped apart
with a scalpel.
The sight of fear—
A collection of your worst fears
A zombie cloaked in thunder.
I see fear as worry, on the front burner, on high. This group was not interested in holding anything back. I appreciated that. I see this poem as a wail—sirens, the action of a scalpel, thunder. I like the word “vat,” and the emotion evoked—the cringe—that walks in with the word “ripped.”
THIS IS HOW TO BE BRAVE
A group poem by six middle and high-school writers
Try new things.
Don’t be afraid of changes.
Have strength when you’re afraid.
Focus through problems.
Don’t conform to others wishes, thoughts, or words.
Even when scared, keep trying.
Don’t run when you see a needle.
Eat lots of chocolate.
Swim in a bouquet of red roses.
Listen to Yo Yo Ma play a tango.
Stand up for the things you’re afraid of.
Turn on the light.
Go with it, don’t wait.
Fly to India alone.
Walk on the crowded streets
followed by beggars, visit the schools
where students do yoga for PE,
and think they’ve hit the lottery
when they are shown a picture book.
Anything chocolate and Yo Yo Ma for me. I love the notion of swimming in a bouquet of favorite flowers. And traveling across the world to India to get a taste of the lives of school children, their yoga practice.
THINGS I WORRY ABOUT
A group poem by two young elementary-school writers
I worry about doctor visits,
and falling into a bottomless trench.
Earwigs laying eggs in my ears.
Spiders that live in my ears.
Black widow spiders.
To calm myself, I think about my family.
I worry that I will be a frog,
or be homeless.
I don’t want to fall off a cliff.
Sometimes I worry about Vampire bats
that suck blood. And sharks.
Centipedes, grasshoppers, snakes.
Being eaten by an alligator, or a bear.
To calm myself, I ask for help to get rid
of the thing I am scared of.
I don’t like having bad dreams.
My worst nightmare is that I will stay little
when I grow up.
To calm myself, I read a good book.
I worry about being a vegetarian,
and about earthquakes.
I worry that my Hickman catheter
will get pulled out of my chest.
To calm myself, I take a deep breath.
We began this session thinking about worries and ways to calm our overactive brains. These two young poets, ages 7 and 8, egged each other on when they arrived at the bug department. For me, the thought of earwigs was enough. But crawling into ears and laying eggs? As much silliness as these two shared together, their worries were real. The poem that follows was written by the same two poets in their classroom with teacher Aileen Hammer. It’s the perfect complement to the poem above.
THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BRAVE
To be unscared
To be strong
To take risks, even if they are scary
To be able to take chances
To just make a decision
To be a little crazy
Being willing to go into hot spaces and smoke
Being willing to do back pokes when you are asleep
Being willing to get poked when you are awake
Being willing to talk in front of the whole class
Being willing to do something for your brother or sister even if you’re scared
This is what is means to be brave.
“Be willing to go into hot spaces and smoke” is my favorite line. Along with “Being able to do back pokes when you are asleep.” I think these two poets make a fine team. Don’t you?