The principal at Arizona's elementary school talked me into teaching a poetry class to a group of students. I had reservations about teaching poetry to children. I believe you have to write without inhibitions to create a beautiful poem. I wondered if this wasn't in conflict with the school's agenda to mold the children into considerate and well-behaved individuals who fit harmoniously with the rest of society. I asked for the oldest group of kids, the grade sixes. I figured at least they could read.
I thought they would be my size. In my memory, I attained my actual height at least by grade four. I was surprised by how small they were. I had even less of a notion of what went on in their heads.
During the first class, I decided to let them write their own poems without any suggestions or guidance from me, just to see what they wrote like. They asked if they should write about Halloween, which was coming up. I said, please, no. So they all wrote about Christmas and Hanukkah. The poems all rhymed and some had exactly the same lines. "I am proud of my heritage" was a popular one. There was nothing personal in any of the poems. You couldn't even tell whether a boy or a girl had written it. What a waste of time, I thought. I was hoping for at least one Alphabet City poet who rapped about cockroaches in her coffee cup and her mother's middle names. I'd read a funky, radical book about teaching poetry to inner-city New York kids, and they all wrote lines like, "It's raining apples. How can I avoid temptation?" At twenty-five, I'm a little too young to be a mother or much of an authority figure in the first place. But the kids treated me as if I was a statue they were afraid of.
The night after my first class, I put on my flip-flops and this pin-striped suit I got modeling at some runway show in New York City when I was twenty. I walked to the video store. I was smoking a cigarette and my dog followed me in. He always does that and there's nothing I can be bothered to do about it. The video-store clerks are used to me and it isn't anything like an upscale neighborhood. I picked a rental I'd seen before. On the way to the cash I saw a kid named Clyde from my class.
"What movie did you pick," he asked.
I held up the video that was under my arm, "Gummo."
"It's about these kids who are alienated because a tornado hit their town," I said. "They kill cats and sell them to a Chinese restaurant."
"Cool, should I rent it?"
"I don't know. You might be too young for it. Not because of the sex and violence. But it might give you that creepy feeling, like when you see an older couple screaming at each other on the street."
"Oh, yeah. That's so cool. I never really thought about it that way," he said, nodding. "Are you coming again next week?"
"Yeah, of course."
The next class I thought we'd begin by having a discussion about what poetry was. I brought in some of the most contemporary stuff I could find, spoken word rants about television shows and erotic vacuum cleaners and the like. Weird-ass stuff. I said for me a poem was like a photograph that captures a moment of beauty. "You know, like you visualize an isolated frame of time that excites you. It doesn't have to fit the normal idea of what pretty is."
"Like what?" asked a girl.
I decided to go for the first thing that popped into my head.
"Sometimes things that people think are ugly are really beautiful. Like children pretending to clean cans in a thrown-out sink."
I looked at Clyde, who was sitting close to me like I was his buddy. He was wearing a black tie with a gorgeous yellow songbird on it over his T-shirt. He was already writing away. I looked down at the piece of paper in front of him. His poem was called "Love is a Black Dog in a Video Store." I decided to go with a cinematic example since my ideas about movies were what bonded me and Clyde.
"Like in that movie 'Taxi Driver.' The director takes the camera down a tiny sweating hallway, and then there's a man handing out keys to cheap rooms. He's wearing a top hat for no reason. There's something beautiful about that and it has nothing to do with Christmas."
There was a silence all of a sudden, the kind that only a roomful of kids can produce. I felt a little sweaty. I took off my sweater. They all looked at the tattoo on my shoulder immediately. I felt self-conscious all of a sudden, like I was getting too familiar with them. I quickly put my sweater back on. The damage had already been done. Joseph, this kid with blond hair in his face and sunglasses hanging from the neck of his T-shirt, stood up and pointed his finger at me.
"Are you lookin' at me?" he said.
Alex began humming "You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings," as he started to write his poem. There were band-aids on the tips of each of his finger to stop him from biting his fingernails. He peeled one off his middle finger and started chewing happily on the nail. They had nothing to hide from me.
Whereas in the first class they didn't look at me in the eyes, now they became talkative. Actually, they began to get out of control. They cursed and the boys started making lewd advance to the girls. One boy asked for "poetic license" to punch his best friend in the head.
Then I started reading the poems they were holding out in front of me and sliding across my desk. They had suddenly become open on the paper as well as in the classroom. One had compared feeling good to disco balls, one had written about a raving stepbrother who drank all the orange juice in the house, one had written about his dad letting him sleep out on the balcony in the summer.
Sean pulled out his toenail that he was keeping in his pocket and put it in the center of his table. The other kids scrambled away disgusted.
"Because of this toenail," he said, "I'm now considered the sickest kid in the school."
His poem was called "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Toilet." He compared his toilet to his mother's arm looking through the back of the fridge for a jar of maraschino cherries.
In their writing, their desires and views of themselves were revealed. Take Joseph for instance. He was one of those kids with older brothers, who mysteriously hit puberty too early. He had a sort of Jim Morrison complex. He wrote a poem about wearing leather pants and riding a motorcycle through the desert. There were red snakes curled up on the horizon. He crashed near a motel and ended up overdosing on hashish all alone on the side of the road. Alex wrote a poem about how badly he wanted to have a queen-sized bed. He said his purest desire was to have twelve Japanese women dressed in blue lingerie singing him Britney Spears songs every night.
"Whoa," I said. "We're in school. I could go to jail for letting you write that stuff."
"You said to write about anything," Alex said.
Laurence, meanwhile, was comparing Salma Hayek's eyes to faucets leaking grape juice, and he did it in such a simple and moving way. And there was this beautiful and sensitive child in the class named Jake, whose poems were brilliant. He was profoundly deaf and skipped a grade. All the other students seemed mildly oblivious to his existence. Here's a line from his poem:
Getting dirty is
taking a bath backwards
just watching some city children writing on the wall,