The Last Day For A While

I turned on my lights. I powered up my computer. I made coffee. Then I sprayed down the door knobs, the light switch, and wiped off all my tables.

Downstairs in the English hallway, students were singing, laughing, typical shenanigans.

It felt like a normal Friday.

My students trickled into Room 303. They were quiet.  Shayda told me her knee was flaring up. She’s a ballet dancer. “But it doesn’t matter right now anyway. Our show’s cancelled.  Dance SCAPA’s cancelled. Everything’s cancelled.”

Erica, who was sent home yesterday by the nurse with a fever, bounded in, looking fit as a fiddle. “It was just seasonal allergies, guys! I’m not going to die.”

Soon the bell rang. The PA system squeaked on, and our PE teacher Mrs. Howard led our school in its Mindful Minute, a contemplative practice we’ve been doing every morning since August.

“Breathe in. Calm,” she said. “Breathe out. Relax.” I planted my feet on the floor, put my hands on my knees, and closed my eyes.

It had been exactly one week since the first coronavirus patient had been confirmed in Kentucky:  a 27-year-old WalMart employee from a small rural town about 30 miles from Lexington, where I teach. It was a week of will-we-or-won’t-we. A week of rumors. A week of jangly energy in the cafeteria. A week of “Have you heard anything?” when teachers congregated in the halls.

Just yesterday as I drove home through downtown Lexington past Rupp Arena, it had been announced that our girls state basketball tournament, which had already started, would be suspended indefinitely. People were standing in clusters on the sidewalks, looking dazed. Girls were hugging and crying as they boarded their busses to go back to their hometowns.

Last night, we finally got an email from our superintendent: we would be out of school for three weeks. Friday would be the last day we’d be together for a while. Districts all over the state were making similar decisions about how to best serve their students, how to deliver instruction, how to keep kids engaged, safe, and fed.

I opened my eyes. A lot of my students had not come to school, but those who did were ready to go.  We spent the first 20 minutes or so discussing how surreal everything felt. I tried to answer questions as best I could, making sure they knew that everything I was saying right then might change by tomorrow.

My students are smart consumers of current events. They are politically and culturally engaged. Nobody was panicking. Nobody was crying. But I knew they were shaken a bit.  It felt like the last day of camp had arrived, and we weren’t ready for it.

“Let’s do some poetry,” Evelyn said.

“That’s the spirit.”

We started off with storyboarding Matthew Zapruder’s poem, “Birds of Texas.” Then we read a bit from Gregory Orr’s essay, “The Four Temperaments,” on the story, structure, music, and imagination of poetry. Then I opened the podium up for an anything-goes-poetry reading.

Everyone in the room shared. They read poems about grandparents and eyes and lust and death and sardines.  My colleague Mr. McCurry popped in and read a poem from his first book of poetry, which was launched today, Open Burning.

We snapped and read and clapped. We made jokes about the apocalypse.

“I won’t see you guys again until April 6. Let’s take a selfie!” I said.

“Coronavirus!” we all yelled.

“I’m already missing you guys,” Erica said.

The bell rang and it was time for them to leave. We bumped elbows, and I promised to see them on Google classroom Monday morning.

I don’t know what the next few weeks are going to look like. I don’t know how we’ll make up the lost time. I don’t know how to plan for any of this.

“This is us against the coronavirus,” our governor has reminded Kentuckians this week in his twice-daily press conferences. “We will get through this, and we will do it together.”

But my kids and I were all going our separate ways, to hunker down against the looming pandemic.  We had been doing our innocent, every-day school stuff that we love – and suddenly we are not. Maybe it’s just a brief interruption. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe a mystery of COVID-19 is that it’s not clear whether it’s causing us to pull together or pull apart. This is somewhere we’ve never been before.

If teaching has taught me anything, it has taught me the power of community. And even though Americans may pride ourselves on our independence, our rugged individualism, community is the thing that will serve us well in this moment. When we sacrifice, when we love each other, when we give grace, and when we do it together, we can thrive.

And let’s not forget about poetry – and art and dance and song and theatre. Poetry takes on new meaning as well, as we walk out into this strange territory. Poetry becomes how we stay connected. It becomes life.

“Be well. Take care of each other,” I yelled after them.

When I left school later that afternoon, the sun was shining. Yellow jonquils and purple crocuses were everywhere.  Spring had sprung, and it seemed like a normal Friday afternoon.

Except it wasn’t.

A Renga for Room 303

From our window looking out onto the world

Last year, our poetry unit focused on imagery and language.  This year, we focused on form and function and looked at some different forms like sestinas and pantoums.  Most of my students had some experience with the haiku as a form, but only two had heard of the traditional Japanese form of linked verse called a renga (pronounced“reng-guh”).This form encourages collaboration:  one student writes a traditional haiku of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, then gives it to another student who writes a “waki,” a response of two seven-syllable lines. Traditional themes for rengas are often about nature and love, but we were inspired by “Renga for Obama,” a collaboration of 200 poets curated by poet Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review, as a way to celebrate, elegize, commemorate, and memorialize something we all shared: our classroom.

(If you want to inspire your students, I suggest you watch the doc-u-reading of  Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, a collaboration of 54 American poets in a “poetic relay race”of ten lines each about America. It’s a marvel.)

For this activity, we used long strips of paper and spent the last twenty minutes of class, writing haikus and passing them around the room to someone who would respond with a waki. There were lots of giggles and threats not to “ruin” their haikus with a wacky wakis. Also, lots of syllable counting on fingers

That afternoon, I sat down to read them. Clear patterns and themes emerged. There were a lot of inside jokes, allusions to shared experiences, and references to a suspected ghost that haunts our room (referred to currently as Toast Ghost Malone). They referenced our third-floor perch with the birds, our view high above Lafayette, and the fairy lighting I have strung around the room. But also the theme of safety, warmth, coffee, creativity, frustration, and beauty materialized.  Here are a few of their rough drafts:

 

Scribbles of pencil                                                                  

Minds crowded with ideas

Angrily erase

 The birds outside chirp on roofs

listening to compositions

  

Small, oblivious

the way we wish we could be

safe in the bright sun

 Underneath the fairy light

the sound of writing pencils

 

Here is a safe place

hidden in coffee heaven

robins and donuts

 Tucked away from the outside

creative machine working

 

Walker cracks a joke

Sarah loves Luke Bryan and trucks

Sarah Grace wants tape

 Here we speak with Welsh accents

‘Welcome to Alabama’

 

The smell of coffee

Hypnotizes us to think

This may be a cult

 Chanting, heaving, laughing sounds

Passer by-ers squint and frown

 

Toast Ghost Malone is

A sister, a father, and

Caregiver to all

 He knocked over the desk laughing

Then stood over our heads, pecking

 

Where is my pencil?

Who took my pink princess pen?

Oh, Toast Ghost, not again

The ghost continues to haunt

The gentle end of March wind

 

All journals worn, torn

Pencils break with ambition

Coffee and tea stains

 Wire bird cages, plastic

Autumn leaves in Christmas lights

 

Surrounded by books

A whiteboard full of wise words

Coffee mugs and art

 Laughing through our deepest fear

Ideal conditions now

 

The bull inside my head

Open the gate, watch it run

Stampede, let it roar

 Watch the crowd erupt with joy

Their screams are heard from miles

 

We are a safe space

On the third floor, oh the stairs  

Free from harsh judgement

Laughing through our deepest fear

Of the mad poets in here

 

People think we’re crazy

They hear us screaming through doors

I bet they’re jealous

 Of our own personal ghost

And kick-ass coffee machine

 

Blank, but untethered

Safely confused until some

Startling explosion

 The caw of a careless crow

Perched outside our large windows

 

That great creative

Spark, in the form of a bird

Like a phoenix

 A birth and rebirth in tandem

When every mind comes alive

 

Yellow world outside

Sat on a muddied rainbox

Stones now falling from our tongues

Each of us speaking our mind

Words full from colorful lands

 

Refuge from the world

Why I want to come to school

The ghost is pretty cool

 Toast Ghost Post Malone stealing

Pencils and also fridges

 

The table thing was an

Accident I swear you guys

Stop mentioning it

 I just wanna hang with you:

The cool kids, coffee, and toast

 

Toast ghost feel welcome

To our sweater vest abode

Please, bring disco pants.

 Feel free to bring your own mug

We have plenty of coffee

 

But you gotta pay

Like twenty dollars, man, you know,

Pay rent or get out

 Ah, not  the rent thing, again

McDonalds won’t hire ghosts

 

We are safe in here

Wearing vibrant reds and blues

Refuge from the grey

 The windows are frozen still

Please don’t come in here, we’re shy

 

Safety in numbers

Spilling community tea

Secrets always safe

 Underneath the twinkle lights

The trees know all our sins

 

Soft orbs shedding light

On each other, igniting

Pens and crisp paper

 Fire and lightning, knowledge

Truthful clichés, warm coffee

 

The warmth of being

Accepted by your peers and

Smiles fill the air here

 There is only truth and joy

Comfort to be found in here

Sweet Retreat: Writing Down a Saturday

In 1986, I took my first creative writing class with Gurney Norman at the University of Kentucky. At the end of a semester, Gurney wrote us a letter. “Writers work mostly alone, but sometimes they get together for a little while.  It means whatever it means.”   I still have that letter, and I think about his words often. Teachers are equally singular.  We go into our rooms and shut our doors, but sometimes it’s good to get together to connect with one another.

I’m grateful to the Morehead Writing Project for hosting two writing retreats each year that brings teachers and writers together for a day of community.  These single days, carved out in October and April, are grounding points in my year.

On Saturday, April 23,, twenty-five writers and teachers of writing met at the Gateway Arts Center, a converted Methodist church that has been painted lemon yellow on the corner of Wilson Alley and Main Street in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.    We gathered around a long table in a narrow, upper room with hard wood floors and lots of natural light.  Fueled by coffee and donuts, we began.

Abby Thomas, the creative writing teacher at the local high school, started us off with Howard Nemerov’s poem, “Because You Asked about the Line Between Poetry and Prose,” and asked us to respond to the poem by describing the line between prose and poetry or to articulate the line between two other elements/concepts. We wrote for fifteen minutes and shared.

Carole Johnston, author of Manic Dawn and Journeys: Getting Lost, then led us in a 90-minute writing exercise on the tanka, a Japanese short form, traditionally written as thirty-one syllables in a single unbroken line. Similar to the haiku, there can be some syllable counting business, but Johnston discounted that as unnecessary.   Her advice was to pay attention to what is around you and put it down in mindful language.  Keeping the language concrete, writing tankas can be a daily spiritual practice which forces you to be present for the moment of observation.  She asked us to write about a moment from our childhood that was embedded in place.  We wrote for ten minutes or so. Then she asked us to circle the concrete nouns and verbs in the paragraph we had just written and arrange them in lines that followed a short/long/ short/long/long poetry arrangement.  We shared again and repeated the process two more times. Each time we converted experience into tanka, the writing became more concrete, visual, and compact.

Next up, Christopher McCurry, author of Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets, editor of Accents Publishing, and co-founder of Workhorse, a literary collective in Lexington, also talked to us about forms, indicating that forms were merely starting placew for poetry.  Like taking a cat on a walk with a leash, poetry forms allow us to reign in our creativity, not for the purpose of squelching it but for clarifying the moment and the poet’s intent.

After reading several love poems in varying forms, McCurry invited us to create our own poetry form based on some organizing principle in our lives – draw a grid of your day, look at the pattern of your children, your pets, your collections,  the things you take care of, maybe how your cell phone apps are arranged, and create a poetry form based on this organizing principle in your life.  As the forms took shape, we made decisions about line length, rhythm, rhyme, and stanzas. Finally, we named our forms as well.  Here are a few of them:

Following lunch, we embarked on a writing walkabout, a Morehead Writing Project staple which basically looks like this: writers fall into groups of three or four and walk around a place until they happen upon a spot where they want to write –a park, a coffee shop, a creek bank, an abandoned store front, etc.  They settle into the spot and write for fifteen or twenty minutes. When time is called, they share what they’ve written.  No real criticism or feedback is given.  The space just absorbs the writing, and the group moves on to the next unplanned destination and repeats the process until the walkabout is finished.  In large cities, walkabouts can take an entire day. We had two solid afternoon hours to roam.

My group had three people in it, and we stopped at the old train depot,then we meandered up Bank Street to the unoccupied Traditional Bank drive thru alley, then ended up on the steps of the Montgomery County courthouse on Court Street.

At the end of the day, the large group reconvened on the front patio of the old Mt. Sterling High School which is now a senior residential apartment complex. We had a small reception and shared the fruit of their labors with an informal open mic.

The day was sweet with words and memories. It means whatever it means. Until next time.