On Surprises

We’re sitting in a rectangle of desks on Friday afternoon, ready for Round Two of poetry presentations in American Literature class. Yesterday, the class was a showcase of teenaged creativity. I’ve arranged their projects on the low bookshelf that runs along the back of the room:  a model village to illustrate E.E. Cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town;” a hand-drawn children’s book about friendship to go with “Your Catfish Friend,” by Richard Brautigan; leftover rhubarb cupcakes to remind us, like Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken,” that even unattractive options–like rhubarb–can make “all the difference.”

Today, my students treat one another to further delights. Several of them have made videos to represent the tone and imagery of their poems, a project that I described as “kind of like a music video, but for a poem.” And four of them, boldest of all, wrote music to accompany the words of their poems. These songs vary from cheerful to haunting, and it’s the last one that strikes me most.

The student, a typically sleepy boy who sits near the front of my class, shyly plugs in his iPod to play the song he wrote for E.E. Cummings’s “Chansons Innocentes.” It is airy and gentle, acoustic guitar accompanying two vocal lines. It sounds like Jack Johnson, a bit, but the voice is unmistakably him.

“Did someone else sing this with you?” I whisper to him as the class listens in awed respect.

“Huh?” he replies.

“There are two voices.”

“Oh, yeah. Those are both me.”

I’m no musical technician. For a few seconds I’m imagining this student in his dorm room, composing and recording this music–music which so artfully represents the fragile cheerfulness of the poem–then layering guitar with melody and harmony. Hours of work too complex for me, from someone who doesn’t always embrace complexity.

I’m struck, listening to these songs, by how often my students still surprise me. Having only been a teenager relatively recently myself, I like to think my expectations of them are just. Yet here we are, a long way through the year, and I’m delighted to speechlessness by their interpretations of poetry, each speaking in his or her own voice–whether in sculpture or cooking, song or videography–the discoveries they’ve made about words that they love.

A long time ago, I wrote these words about teaching ninth grade in Seattle:

Lately I’ve decided that if I can’t destroy every wicked “ism” in the world—racism, sexism, classism and the like—I can at least defend the two beleaguered groups that concern me: ninth graders and those who choose, nay, love to teach them….

Most of all, however, I tell the critics about the surprises.  The students who start class by surrendering iPods so as to avoid distraction.  The way that these ninth graders learned to critique the imagery and metaphors in one another’s poetry, pulling out specific phrases and analyzing them with constructive grace and ease.  Of course they sometimes throw paper, forget instructions instantly, use “your” and “you’re” without recognizable pattern, and flirt unabashedly through many an English lesson, but they surprise as often as they exasperate, the ninth graders who fill my days.

Now, in a new school with older students, they’re no less surprising. Reminding me that I don’t know it all, that even as a somewhat experienced teacher I have a great deal to learn, I’m honored to share my days with these creative, unique, and interesting young people. May I never cease to be surprised.

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2 thoughts on “On Surprises

  1. How lovely to know that you are teaching and writing. I smile as I write this. You are so much bigger than your beginnings. I still have your posters which used to hand in your room. I have the feeling you don’t need to tell your present students to keep all six legs on the floor. 🙂 Do well, cutie.

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