An excerpt from a secret project I can’t tell you about
The other day a friend asked, “What’ve you been up to?”
“I’m working on a project.”
“It’s not exciting. It’s work. Like any 9 to 5 job.”
“Oh, come on. So is it like a book?”
“Sort of. I don’t want to say too much. It’s bad luck to talk about what you’re writing while you’re still writing it. It offends the writing gods.”
“You believe that?”
“Oh. Okay weirdo. So what’ve you been up to?”
I can’t tell you a whole lot except my project involves writing letters. If you’ve been with me for a while you may know how much I encourage letter writing. Therapeutic. Cathartic. Reassuring. As intimate as sitting on the porch with someone–a friend or enemy–sipping lemonade, as leaves fall, as the squirrels dart from tree to tree, as the turkey browns in the oven, and having a genuine conversation.
This holiday season will be strange. A lot of quiet homes. A lot of leftovers. A lot of grandparents left bewildered and frustrated by Zoom.
Not sitting around the kitchen table with my aunts and uncles and cousins, most of whom I haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving will be…sad.
No matter the year, celebrating with extended family, before one year ends and another begins, has always marked the calendar. A seasonal ceremony of bad sweaters. As Joseph Campbell might say, “an ancient ritual which served to harmonize the body and spirit. It’s a necessary social and emotional deed.” Sliced turkey. Sweet potatoes. Two types of stuffing. Deviled eggs. Cranberries. Pumpkin pie. Plenty of food and conversation and not enough elbow room.
Let’s not sugar coat it. For many of us, not seeing family this Thanksgiving will be hard. But letter writing might help ease the sadness. The loneliness. You don’t need to be a writer to do it. All you need is a pen, some paper, and a willingness to sit down and have an honest conversation with someone.
Below is an excerpt from the writing project I’m not allowed to talk about. It’s a letter I recently wrote to my kids. Don’t tell the writing gods I showed you. They can be harsh with punishments.
Like casting a plague upon all of our houses.
Haley, Chase, and Dylan,
I want you to read poetry. Right now. Before you get old and cranky and consumed by jobs, car insurance rates, supermarket sales, and your kid’s soccer practice.
You know me as “Dad.” But for 17 years, in three different high schools, I was known as Mr. Armstrong. The English teacher. And from the feedback I received from the students, parents, and official administrative evaluations I was an A- teacher.
My classroom desk was often littered with chicken-scratched Post-it notes. I did not decorate my classroom with colorful, motivational decor. For as long as I can remember I had just three black-and-white posters: Mohammed Ali, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. I never had a legitimate filing system for student work. Lesson plans were often disorganized and outdated. Classroom novels were haphazardly stacked in a corner as if the spines were stricken with scoliosis. I failed to keep abreast of the newest advancements in pedagogical theories. And after one particular evaluation, an administrator demanded I stop wasting valuable class time telling personal stories. I told them to “fire me.” I was serious. I told them I would rather stock shelves or lay bricks than be denied the opportunity to tell stories to young people. Fortunately, I was not fired. In fact, later that year, I was awarded “The Teacher of the Year” at my school. Sometimes defiance gets a bad rap.
For years I skirted poetry the way you skirt chores. Poetry seemed too hard. Too tedious. Too much risk and not enough reward.
Yet, in my last few years, when my disease accelerated, I taught more poetry. I found comfort in its mystery and each poem presented a learning workshop for the students and me.
I assume I avoided teaching poetry for so many years because I didn’t want to be wrong. Being insecure and vulnerable in public used to bother me. Maybe I just grew comfortable being uncomfortable. When you’re the only adult in the room there’s a lot of pressure to be right. When you’re older you’ll feel this pressure.
In 17 years, a student never announced they planned to go to college and major in poetry. Not one said they planned to buy a black beret, a black cat, a black turtleneck, rent a studio apartment in Brooklyn, and chainsmoke all night long.
But many said they planned to keep reading poetry after high school. Even the half-hearted students.
They said they liked how poetry comforted them in moments of crisis. When their mom lost her job. When they were rejected by their dream college. When COVID-19 hit. When they watched American cities moan and burn in the fires of civil unrest in the summer of 2020. Caught in the cross-hairs of history, they said they found shelter in the sturdy verse of a poem.
They even said they never realized how cool poetry was. How defiant poets were. Bukowski. Plath. Thomas. And how anything by e.e. cummings broke enough grammar rules to break an elementary school teacher’s big heart. How Marvell made them laugh. How Frost inspired them. How Angelou, Hughes, Dickenson feathered their nerves and thawed their frozen spirit. How poetry made them cry. Wince. Shake. Smile. And think deeply about themselves. About others. And how despite being quarantined in a lifeless town, through a well written verse they sensed the zipping electricity of the living world just beyond their stone curb.
They said reading poetry was a way to feel less socially distant.
I liked one particular email from a student who said they were amazed how a poet 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” felt. Like an old friend who stood by them when they found themselves standing in the street, looking up, convinced the sky was falling.
Like high school poetry is not a problem to solve.
Poetry is proof of existence. Like your portrait in a high school yearbook. You can take a poem at face value and move on or read it like a scientist,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’re gifted with teachers who tease out little-by-little, line-by-line the ingredients of the world. Science. Math. History. English.
I found a teacher in poetry. A teacher who, at times, I didn’t always understand (with his big words, often pretentious rhyme scheme, and obscure allusions to Greek mythology) but who taught me to question, to find humanity in others, and to observe the fine details of fleeting scenery.
Bottom line: read poetry. You may not become poets but sooner or later you will have to enroll in the fine art of living. And poems are essential materials for passing the course.
For your homework, please read the following poems and connect the poem to a personal experience. Prepare an oral presentation, 3-5 minutes, that explains how the poem relates to your life. You must set a minimum of two lines to memory. You will make your presentations after dinner. Also, no PowerPoint. Only half-hearted students use PowerPoint.
Haley, please read, “The Journey” by Mary Oliver
Chase, please read, “Golden Retrievals” by Mark Doty
Dylan, please read, “The Voice” by Shel Silverstein
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