(photo by Eric Levine)
Poets.org suggests Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats” for Monday’s “Teach This Poem” offering, so the drafting I’ve done for today’s Slice will have to wait. The nearer April approaches, the more excited I get. Yes, it may have been called “the cruelest month” by T.S. Eliot, but I beg to differ. It’s National Poetry Month, and I CELEBRATE! This year will be the first in decades that I won’t be asking my students to pick a “poster poem,” designing it so that the art represents what they see/feel/otherwise experience—the reason they chose the poem manifest.
Two years ago, Charlie chose “blessing the boats;” no other student had ever selected it before. It’s absolutely perfect for them, too, for the school community rests in the cradle of the Atlantic and the Manasquan River. I approve his choice, affirming that Clifton’s words are certainly “wall-worthy.” Charlie is one of my favorites (yes, we have them) because in a sea of sometimes-crazy at the end of the day, he manages to be a leader without being a prig. He is respected by peers and teachers alike, one of the still-waters-run-deep kids you think about even after they’ve left your class.
What he isn’t is an artist, so when I unroll the poster he has quietly left in the hubbub that is homeroom, I am dumbstruck. It is truly a work of art, ready to be framed! I begin displaying it to my homeroom kids; I want them to see what quality work looks like. “Hey, Ms. Emerson, you know Charlie’s mom did that, right? She’s an artist, a real one.” The printing however, is all Charlie, those less-than-perfectly aligned letters, the inconsistent spacing, but he’s kept the line integrity, correct spelling, the lack of capitals and punctuation. He has honored Clifton’s poem, and my requirements. He has not done the art.
I relate this anecdote to my husband, and he asks if that’s fair, that Charlie had his mom do the art. The answer is complicated. I value the poem selection and reflection first and foremost. I have told the students that if their works shows effort, it doesn’t have to be perfect— “pleasing to the eye” and “your best effort” the phrases I’ve used.
It’s the last block, Charlie’s; the kids will present their posters, their poems. Some have memorized them. The speaking part is tough for many of these adolescents even though we practice frequently. Charlie is quiet by nature, and I have not gotten to speak to him, that I remember as I call his name, and he steps up front, displaying his poster. “Hey, Charlie, did your mom do that?”
Charlie calmly waits a beat, then “confesses.” “My mom did the art. I did the poem. I wanted it to be the best it could be.” Here’s the thing. He owns it, doesn’t he? He’s done the real work, the poem obviously speaking to him, and he has asked his mom to help. His earnestness, imagining Charlie’s plea, that he cared enough when so many care so little, is enough.
That satisfies the kids, his honesty, and it satisfies me, too: “and may you in your innocence/sail through this to that.”