What is Scary
By Rachel Kessler, WITS Writer-in-Residence
This fall, I have been a writer in residence at Washington Middle School, in Seattle’s Central District. Inside the school’s deceptively low-slung building, approximately 1,200 students who reflect the ethnic, cultural and economic diversity of Seattle move between classes through labyrinthine hallways that always smell faintly of donuts (Franz bakery churns them out next door). Navigating these bustling halls, I am greeted by friendly shouts of, “MS RACHEL!” and “POETRY LADY!” Even students who have no idea who I am kindly offer to help me find my way to a remote portable when I look lost, which is often. My own experience of middle school was one of terror and angst – I vividly remember being bullied and writing a sad poem (anonymously, of course) on the girl’s bathroom wall. All these years later I am astounded by the warm, trusting atmosphere of the 6th grade language arts classrooms of Ms. Simmons, Ms. Forsythe, Mr. Rose-Leigh, and Mr. Rietz that I was welcomed into. These students were excited to experiment with words and enthusiastic about sharing their poems. My first day there, I knew that this was a very special place.
6th grade can be a very intense and crazy-feeling time, with all the hormones of puberty and subsequent neural activity. The growing adolescent brain is an amazing creative force. The emotional seat of the brain, the amygdala, connects sensory information to emotions and gains processing power before the frontal cortex, which acts as rational filter. “Adolescent brains actually work differently than adult brains,” (Sarah Spinks, “Inside the Teenage Brain”), which makes this time of being a human a very special one, chock full of challenges regulating overwhelming surges of emotion, but this same challenge can also be harnessed as a super power for writing poetry. The risk-taking behavior of youths allows for invention and discovery – Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, inventing a new literary genre, science fiction.
So, we invented monsters together and wrote poems about them. I had students warm up with a collaborative drawing exercise. Exquisite Corpse (from the original French term cadaver exquis) is a technique invented by Surrealist artists in the 1920s. In our version, we each fold a blank piece of paper into thirds and begin by drawing the top or head of a person or animal, then fold it down so only a few lines hang below the fold, a hint for the next person of where to connect the torso in the middle to the head on the top. The paper is then passed, and, without peeking at what is drawn above, everyone draws the torso of a creature in the middle third of the paper. Then the paper is folded down again, so only a few marks hang below the fold to indicate where to connect the bottom of the drawing to the middle. We pass again, and everyone draws the feet, or talons, or wheels, or flippers, or whatever base they want in the bottom third of the paper. When finished, unfold and scream! Here are a few from Ms. Forsythe’s class:
Then, I read them the fantastic book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, poem by Maya Angelou and paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Thanks to my fellow WITSer Aaron Counts for introducing me to this book a few years back.) Before I read the book, I shared a brief biography of the artists. I asked the students to be on the lookout for recurring words and images that they notice.
After reading this, we discussed the images and words that we noticed. When looking at visual art and poetry, I prefer to ask an open-ended question: “What’s going on in this picture/poem?” followed up by “What do you see (or hear) that makes you say that?” and “What more can we find?” I learned about this method, Visual Thinking Strategies, from an arts educator training I received at the Seattle Art Museum. This leads to discussions about art that engage students in critical and creative thinking, rather than trying to echo what they know the educator is digging for. These 6th graders were astute observers and offered their own ideas about why the artist chose the words and images they did. Many pointed out the refrain Maya Angelou repeats, “life doesn’t frighten me at all, not at all,” was a way to argue with the scary things she lists in her poem.
We brainstormed on the board a list of scary things that we found in the book and in our lives:
people who hate you for your religion
Returning to the poem, we noticed that Maya Angelou has a “Magic Charm that I keep up my sleeve / I can walk the ocean floor and never have to breathe.” What kind of magic charms do we have available to us? A short list:
take deep breaths
talk to self
breathe out fear, breathe in courage
walk the ocean floor
She wasn’t scared unless her mom was.
She wasn’t uncomfortable unless her mom was.
Her mom was her special charm –
always there to comfort her.
The girl felt safe.
She wasn’t scared—
She wasn’t scared—
She wasn’t scared.
When her mom was there
reaching up to the sky and touching the stars
wasn’t a problem.
It wasn’t difficult,
no matter what she did when she was with
her special charm.
— Raven R.
We then worked on some refrains we could repeat when feeling afraid but being brave:
“Life doesn’t frighten me”
“Keep movin’ on”
“I think I can”
“Think like a beast”
“When I see water I see my reflection. I was afraid to swim.
I know that a mouthful of water can’t harm you, but fear can.”
— Kahlissa W.
Together on the board, we sketched out a few monsters. One was the Monster of Fear of Tests, who had a question mark body, plusses for eyes, quotation marks for eyelashes, an equal sign mouth, minus symbol arms, and multiplication symbols for feet. Another monster we collaborated on was the Fear of Gunshots in My Neighborhood. “Its voice sounds like a giant setting off firecrackers. It smells like smoke and is green, like stinky green bad breath. It has bombs for eyes.” This led to a discussion about what to do when you hear gunshots, and a deeper conversation about violence and gun violence, in particular. Students comforted each other – there recently was a shooting in a neighborhood where many of them live – and several of them confided that they had gotten into bed with their mom or grandma or older sibling that night because they were scared. I was amazed at the kindness students showed each other and at how willing they were to be vulnerable. This kind of trust and respect speaks volumes for the work the teachers and staff at Washington do to make their classrooms a safe place.
I asked the students to write about their own fears. I wrote these question prompts on the board:
1) What really scares me…
2) What would this fear look like if it were a monster?
3) What do I do when something is difficult or frightening? What is my “magic charm”?
4) What word or phrase do I keep repeating?
Using these prompts and our group brainstorming, students wrote a poem about one of their monsters. I encouraged them to personify their fear as a monster, and to use all five senses to describe how this fear looks, moves, acts, smells, sounds, and so on.
My Monster Is Fear of the Past
My monster is a really big beast with sharp teeth.
His arms hang very long like vines on trees.
His legs are very long, they bend when he runs
almost like he’s walking on stilts.
As he approaches he just stands there, holding my fear of the past.
— Ja’Loni S.
My monster licks his lips like Thanksgiving
My monster drools at me, when one eye peeks
My monster likes pepper I guess because
When I wake up, I’m sneezing, ACHOO!
— Ella G.
My Monster Is Me
My biggest fear is me.
It’s like there’s two of me.
One of me says
DO this, it’s a great idea.
The other is saying
if you take that idea
you will mess everything up.
It’s like having a twin
that tells you what to do.
You’re fighting all the time
but you are the only one.
— by Leeuntra H.
They don’t live under your bed.
They sleep in your head!
They torment me for days.
But I’m not afraid!
They live in everyone.
They spoil the fun!
You do what they say
or in the grave you lay.
You may think you’re alone
but all of us are cold.
and this monster! This monster!
no longer stands tall
This monster! This monster!
I hold in my palm.
— Lily W.
I circulate around the classroom while students write, peeking at their poems, encouraging them, asking questions to write further and deeper. Several students asked for help articulating their fear. Some of them did not have the word for what the thing was. “It’s like when people blow up kids, little kids, just because of where they live, or their religion or something,” and “it’s like slavery, but it’s not over, it’s still happening now, you know, segregation.” These 11- and 12-year-olds possess the incredible powers of imagination that children have, while they engage with the world they live in, grappling with the hatred and horror they do not even have words for, but can think critically about and question. In writing about their fears, they also make space for dreams and ideals. These young writers demonstrate every day what courage looks like.