Thursday, November 30, 2006

Freedom of Speech vs. The Insufficiently Caffeinated Poetry Teacher

It's an evil day when there's no coffee in the teacher's room at 8:20 a.m., on a morning so cold you can see your breath in the elementary school parking lot. It's a bad omen.

You've brought a "fun" lesson plan--a poem called Sweet Like a Crow, by Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) which one of your adult poetry students turned you on to the other night in class. Adult students are so great. They rarely poke each other with their pencils or make deliberate farting noises while you are introducing a poem. They are diligent and attentive, and never beg for poems about ice hockey.

Anyway, "Sweet Like a Crow." Some sample lines: "Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed/Through a glass tube,/Like someone has just trod on a peacock,/Like wind howling in a coconut,/...Like a pig drowning,/A bone shaking hands,/A frog singing at Carnegie Hall.../A dolphin reading epic poetry to a sleepy audience.../Like an angry family pushing a jeep out of the mud,/Like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle/Like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep/And someone walked through the room in ankle bracelets."

It's a perfect teaching poem, almost as if Michael Ondaatje had been a poet in the schools himself! Of course you had to cut any references to sex, and edit out the opening epigram, which gave a political slant to the poem, thus changing its meaning. You don't like doing that, but after years of teaching kids, you can child-proof a poem as effortlessly as a mother of ten can throw together a casserole.

These two fourth grade classes are larger than usual because a third fourth grade class is being split between them. But the first class goes well anyway; the students have fun, they write well, and even though one young man is on his fourth out of five poems about ice hockey ("It's all I think about," he explained earnestly,) everything is good. Except that there has been no coffee yet this morning, and the only place you want to be in the classroom is directly below the big noisy heater.

Second class starts out well also; you have the kids give thumbs up or thumbs down as to whether they think a particular image is "sweet" or not. This is a great opportunity to talk about oxymorons and synesthesia; this is Walnut Creek, with a top-notch school system and an international body of students.

The only problem is that the classic example of oxymoron that you usually use is "military intelligence." After a very negative experience at this same school the Wednesday morning after the '04 election results aka coup d'etat were announced, you have learned that it's best to separate your political opinions from your work, even if you are a poet. So you come up with "hot ice," which is lame, but sort of works.

Then you do the group poem on the board, and they contribute similes, from the banal, "It sounds like popcorn popping," to the beautiful, "Like whales making sweet conversation with each other."

Then a little boy named Reda raises his hand, and when you lean in to hear his idea, he whispers, "It sounds like a bomb."

At this point you notice that you are really missing that cup of coffee that you didn't get yet, because your brain is not working. Plus the regular teacher has left the classroom for a few minutes (probably to go to the bathroom, teachers are generally more vigilant than air traffic controllers.) She has left an aide in the classroom with you and the 35 children, an aide who can now witness the class getting restive and noisy and you not keeping good enough control.

Although you believe in democracy and free speech, you do not always practice what you preach. Instead you say flatly, "No bombs."

When another kid starts to protest, you cut him off as well. "No bombs, no guns. Period."

Of course they immediately start bargaining. This is what kids do, because they don't have money, or driver's licenses--the only power they have going for them is their inexhaustible energy which always wins out in the end, since your own energy has been proven to be all-too-exhaustible. And also because it's fun, and, face it, they don't have much better to do on a Thursday morning during poetry class. So they bargain, they wheedle, and they try to wear you down; experience has shown them that occasionally they can slip one over if they do.

"What about if the bomb went off underwater and nobody got killed except a bunch of fish?"

"What if it was a laser gun that only shot aliens?"

Nine-year-old Lauren comes up to you and narcs on her table-mates, "You said no bombs or guns, so they're writing about grenades and knives." Believe me, there is nothing and no one more strategic than a pre-teen girl. If there is a loophole they will find it and turn it into the Shroud of Turin. Ask me how I know.

You can hear your voice rising. "No guns, no bombs, no grenades, no knives, no violence. Can't you guys think of something else to write about?"

But no, now that the topic has been introduced and declared off-limits, they can't. They want explosions, big bangs, stuff blowing up, war, sirens screaming, fiery car crashes, weapons of mass destruction.

Your own 11-year-old nephew, writing a letter to his 11-year-old penpal, a girl in England, wrote, "I like war. What do you like?" At the time you'd suggested he amend the sentence to "I like reading about war," or "I like video games about war," or even "I like military history," because, as you'd gently explained, "You wouldn't really like war if you were in it. Like if a bomb were falling on your house, you probably wouldn't like that. You just like learning about wars that took place in the past."

"Okay," he'd agreed. He didn't have an axe to grind, like his perimenopausal, aging hippie auntie. He was just trying to tell this sweet little English girl about himself as instructed, and the honest truth was, he thinks he likes war.

So now the regular teacher comes back to the classroom and the aide narcs on you and the kids, "They were rude, they were disrespectful, they wouldn't stop talking..."

You feel compelled to interject, "Oh, they weren't that bad." Whose ass are you trying to save anyway?

Then, to save relations with the aide, you add gratuitously, "I live in Oakland, and this would be nothing over there."

You don't say that there are loud popping noises outside your bedroom at night, which could be firecrackers, and could be cars backfiring, and could be guns, because you sense that this would not help build your case, whatever case it is you want to be building.

You also do not confess that last night you went with your friend to see Casino Royale, the new Bond movie, and screamed delightedly for the first 20 minutes which featured a very long chase scene during the course of which several cars crashed, buildings exploded, and people got hurt and killed in colorful ways. You do not confess that you squeezed your friend's hand and shrieked like a teenager on a roller coaster at all the destruction, the incredible stunts, the indestructible Bond getting practically run over and abused in every possible way like Wile E. Coyote, and emerging at the end with a few cuts and scratches and a new white dress shirt, because you sense that this would complicate the conversation in interesting ways, but perhaps not lead to the accomplishment of your educational objectives within 50 minutes.

You have lost track of your educational objectives and are wishing desperately for coffee.

"Well, in Walnut Creek the standards are higher," the aide explains firmly, and she's not being mean, she's just saying what's so, and she's also defending her integrity in reporting to the teacher what she saw.

You realize you've blown it again and skulk back to helping individual kids who, of course, have not quit bargaining, and have added that special fourth grade whine to their voices. "Well, if it was an alien? and he had a ray gun? and he only shot bad guys? but on this particular day he made a mistake and blew up the whole earth? would that be okay?"

And then you hear yourself making a speech. You did not intend to make a speech, but there you are, standing up and using your big tall body and your big loud voice, and your ugly morning frown lines, and your heritage as the daughter of a woman who stubbornly hung a poster which said "War Is Not Good For Children And Other Living Things" on the front door of your house, even decades after the conflict in Vietnam was declared over.

You always thought that was a stupid poster, condescending in its obviousness: War is not good for children. It's best not to brush your teeth with gasoline. No one likes to be eaten alive by piranhas. Duh.

But, obviously, in your middle age you have turned into your own mother--it was bound to happen--and so you make a little speech about how war is not a video game, it is a very terrible thing where people get hurt and killed, even children, and how would you feel if someone in your family were killed, and it's not that they can never write about the subject of violence, because it is an important topic, but when they do write about it you'd like them to understand that it is something that causes great suffering.

And then you sit down, and apologize for interrupting the poetry reading and they look at you somewhat blankly, as children do when adults have just gone off on them, like "Thank goodness that's over, wonder what she was talking about?" and the regular teacher who has been teaching for 40 years and has perfect control of the class says, "Angela, read your poem." And Angela Guo, who comes from Hong Kong and speaks English as a second language, and has memorized a speech from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (in fourth grade!) stands and reads,

The Feeling of Sadness

Sadness feels like your own soul wanting to leave your body,
Like departing from your home
And you can never return again,
Like saying 'good-cye' to your mother
When she has to go to heaven,
Like the pain in a wolf's heart
That makes it howl at night..."

"That was wonderful, Angela," you say when she has finished. "Can I have a copy?" Of course she makes one for you right away because she's a stellar student who will probably end up doing something amazing in life while these violence-obsessed boys will be lucky if they get a clue by the age of 18 and manage to avoid going into the Army.

But this is also none of your business, and class is over, and you stop by the Teacher's Room on your way out, and miraculously it smells of coffee, and you pour yourself a cup, and even if there is only 1% milk to put in it, and 1% milk is an abomination unto the Lord, you pour it in anyway, and are grateful.

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