A poem to my students on the eve of their high school graduation
But first, some background…
In the final days of school, I received emails from both the quiet and the not-so-quiet AP Literature (advanced placement) students I teach.
Emails from future engineers, future nurses, future stock-brokers, future teachers, future spouses, future parents who told me they will never forget certain poems we read in class: The Journey, The Man He Killed, The Horrid Voice of Science and how they plan to read more poetry in their future lives.
Not a single student said they now plan to go to college and major in poetry, buy a black beret, a black cat, a black turtleneck, rent a studio apartment in Brooklyn, and chainsmoke all night long.
They said they just hope to keep reading poetry.
They said they liked how poetry comforted them when COVID-19 wrecked their last few months of high school and when they watched cities moan and burn amid the fires and flames of civil unrest. Caught in the cross-hairs of history, they said they found shelter in the sturdy verse of a poem.
They said they never realized how cool poetry was. How poetry inspired them. Made them smile. Made them feel, despite being quarantined in a small town, the currents of the world.
They said reading poetry was a way to feel less socially distant.
I particularly liked one email from a student that said they were amazed how a stranger from New Mexico could know how a, “17 year old kid from New Jersey felt.”
Other students liked how a specific poem– Good Bones or Dover Beach— would walk with them, like a friend, when they couldn’t take being quarantined in their house any longer, and when they found themselves standing on the street, looking up to the sky, and wondering why this was happening to them.
Poetry, like high school, is not a problem to solve.
Poetry is proof of existence. Like your portrait in a high school yearbook. A poem is either something you can take at face view and turn the page or something you study, trace it’s features, and wonder about the mysteries hidden just below the surface.
I suspect the world is much, much more than we will ever know. Such is our calamity. We learn so much, yet we know so little.
However, we are gifted with teachers who tease out little-by-little, line-by-line the ingredients of the world. Science. Math. History. Literature.
And this year–I, a 17 year veteran teacher,–found a teacher in poetry. A teacher who, at times, I didn’t always understand (with his big words, often pretentious rhyme scheme, and allusions to Greek mythology) but who taught me to question, to see myself in others, and to observe the fine details of fleeting scenery.
And so, with my students graduating high school tomorrow I wrote a poem for them–and maybe for all the students I ever taught.
A poem inspired by the student emails I recently received.
A poem that attempts to prove you and I once existed.
And now the poem…
To my students on the eve of their high school graduation (or an English teacher’s hope)
I hope you read a poem tomorrow. Maybe Mary Oliver. Or Langston Hughes. Dr. Seuss will do. My advice: choose something comforting and inspiring. You’re going to need it.
I hope you read a poem on faraway college night in a library stack, on a futon, on a red bench in the middle of campus when the trapdoor of your heart swings open and your mouth hinges and you tell that person, “I need some time alone.”
I hope you read a poem when you take that job you hate. The one with a security badge and 401k. The one with a windowless cubicle next to a river you rarely see but somehow always feel. The one that makes you miss your hometown and your dreams and a million other knickknacks you boxed up including your high school yearbook and a handwritten letter from the person you thought you’d marry.
I hope you read a poem on the morning of your wedding day when sitting edgewise on the bed and the only thing that calms your hands are the good nouns and verbs of a poem.
I hope you read a poem on the night you become a parent. Twisting a blue bracelet on your wrist and realizing how empty your life was as you waited for the toast to pop this morning and now, like the bottle of formula in your hand, is full.
I hope you read a poem in the bathroom stall before you open the door to your boss’s office and tell her you quit. And I hope you read a poem after you pinball down the steps, push wide the double doors, roll through sunlight down to that river you always felt but never quite saw. And I hope you feel it.
I hope you gift a poem to your child every time they graduate. Kindergarten. Junior High. High School. College. And I hope they think you’re crazy.
I hope you read a poem to your grandchild as they fall asleep in your arms.
I hope you read a poem to your spouse when the cancer gets bad.
I hope you read a poem on the first morning you wake up alone.
I hope you read a poem when night settles on the windows and the old house sits with you like an old friend, puts it’s arm around you, breathes with you, and I hope you realize–through it all–you were never really alone.
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4. Hearing his children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents and a beer with his friends)