Joy in Mudville

By Laura Gamache, WITS Writer-in-Residence

          There was no joy in Mudville
          Mighty Casey had Struck Out

                        Ernest Thayer, from Casey at the Bat

This past Sunday, seconds to play in the Super Bowl, three feet from the end zone, the Seahawks did not score a touchdown. The Patriots intercepted. The Patriots won the Super Bowl.

Monday, before school, I sat in my car outside the building, engine off, radio on. A psychologist was explaining that we Seahawks fans are in mourning, that it’s okay to acknowledge our feeling of loss, that he, not even a particularly rabid fan, couldn’t sleep last night for playing with “what ifs.” All morning I’d been repeating to myself, “There was no joy in Mudville.”

I was out of sorts, grumpy, reluctant to go into the classrooms where fifth graders I knew would be glum. I felt like driving away. I did not feel like teaching, reaching towards those kids, and, doing what exactly? The last two weeks I’d been using the energy of the Seahawks’ conference win, in overtime, to talk about mythology and perseverance. How the team continued to function as a team, kept trying, never descended into blame or depression, believed, and, miraculously, won.

And Sunday night we’d all seen how a member of the other team lit a match that almost flared into mayhem at game’s end. “No, guys. No, no,” I’d pleaded at my television screen. One of my students said today, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He meant the game, and none of the rest of us wanted to talk about it, either.

That night, too, was Langston Hughes’ 113th birthday. Google put up his poem “I Dream a World.” I had copied the image, a dove with an olive branch in its mouth, a light and a dark arm shaking hands in front of our watery world, a little bit cliché, but not if you’re eleven. I’d printed the text from another source. These fifth graders wrote dream-themed poems last week, using other Hughes poems for inspiration, and I was sure they would appreciate this one.

As the first teacher reclaimed her class from PE, I set a blue paper handout on each desk, the “I Dream a World” side up. After the kids gathered up writing notebooks, pencils and name plates, we read the poem together. I lingered on, “Where greed no longer saps the soul,” which is a wonderful, unlikely dream and a terrific line.

With reluctance and a lack of belief that we were going to go anywhere, I launched into the pre-write for today’s poetry writing, asking the kids to brainstorm a list of things in the natural world: pine cone, rock, tree stump, cloud. I said to exclude anything human-made, humans, and animals. “Can we use something animal-made?” someone asked. How could I wallow with this interesting idea before me? “Of course,” I said.

In the two classes, lists included feathers, vines, anthills, waterfalls, lightning, water, a beaver dam, tree root, and iron ore.

After choosing one item from the list, each kid wrote about his or her choice using each of the five senses, after which, I had them flip the handout over, so they could see “Stone” by poet Charles Simic, along with three fifth grade poems from last year. “Go inside a stone,” Simic wrote, “That would be my way.”

I told the kids in the second class that I’d set my timer for two minutes, and then kids could share beginnings so others could get ideas for starting their own pieces. I urged them all to use the two minutes to get their poems going. At the sound of the duck timer bell, some writers had half a page or more they wanted to share.

“Discover lightning,” Jadyn began her poem. There was a fiery poem about a volcano, where the volcano intoned a curse on us, and promised that “none will survive,” and spewed ash when it sneezed, a poem where a morose tree stump misses its leaves, one where a waterfall cannot stop dropping and booming, dropping and booming, dropping and booming, a grumpy anthill, a coolly elegant pearl, and a poignant page-long riddle that ends with a feather lying on the ground, telling the sky about its life flying with an eagle.

I spent much of each writing time flitting from writer to writer, hearing surprising, witty, curious, consciously-intentioned poems in progress. There were many pieces, in each class, that engaged their writers and the rest of us as transported listeners. “I like your nails,” one of the girls said, late in the last class. I looked down at my Seahawk blue and green tipped fingers. “Me too,” I said. There was a little murmur of noticing and agreement. Then, we went back to listening to poems, these poems that took us somewhere other than the aftermath of a stinging loss, giving us, as Mark Doty put it, “esthetic distance.” And joy.

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