Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them): Part III, A Lyric Container for Suffering
September 25, 2012
Posted by on
A Lyric Container: To have a productive place to put the burdens of our day
Being a teacher is not easy. Children of all ages bring with them backpacks of incredible emotional complexity and varied lived experience. I will be haunted to this day by a third grade student in my Los Angeles classroom in 1993. I can still see Angelica’s small head of uncombed black hair asleep on the desk and the bruises on the backs of her slender folded arms. When I asked her about the bruises she explained her sister beat her with a brush and she couldn’t sleep. She also couldn’t read. Angelica made my job a little bit harder each day and as a novice teacher in my early twenties I didn’t know what to do with that information. I decided to march home with her and see the conditions of her life for myself.
I saw a small room of an apartment under the freeway, leftover chicken bones covered with flies, and an angry older sister left responsible for her siblings at too young of a teenage life. Following the L.A. Unified School District rulebook, I did what I was supposed to do and alerted the Division of Family and Children Services to report the abuse. When I saw Angelica the following days and weeks until the end of the year, I learned that whatever I had done, had only made things worse. That was the end of my career as a teacher as I had decided there were too many burdens out of my control and I needed a place to put them, a container for reflection. So at Twenty five years old, just three years after I had started my career as a teacher, I sat in the California Writing Project program for teachers at the University of Los Angeles when for the first time, a poetry instructor gave me permission to write. The whole summer I was to write creatively and reflexively—not just about teaching but about my life, my failed dates, my running group, my hurried bowls of cereal before class. The oppportunity for writing poetry inspired in me a new way of teaching, a workshop model where for the first time I was writing alongside the children—insisting on quiet and concentration so that at the end of the 20 minute third grade period we could share our stories, get feedback, and write our books. Books weren’t easy to publish then, computer word processing was still new, there weren’t programs for layout. We had to build our books and illustrations ourselves. I was never so proud of a literacy assignment. But this pride had come too late. I had already sent in applications to go to graduate school the following year and with emergent success and a container for the emotional cycles of a teacher’s day, I packed my L.A. apartment and headed for the red woods to start of my graduate studies at U.C. Santa Cruz and then across the country at the University of Pennsylvania. But I was already addicted to the experience of making art with words. Throughout my degree programs in education, I snuck the poems into my life. When I finally became a full-fledged professor, I gave myself permission in 2005 to take myself seriously as an artist. I finally felt I could afford to do it—I could afford the cost of such a program (at least I thought so! I was grateful for some lucky fellowships and prizes that defrayed the costs considerably), and I could afford the time. I also felt I couldn’t afford not to—I needed to have a stronger poetry “container” to place my experiences as “witness” in educational contexts as well as in my personal life.
Thus, I signed up for a “low residency MFA” program where I could keep my job and over two years time work on my poetry during winter and summer breaks and during the academic year by mail with a mentor poet. This M.F.A. program at New England College was a wonderful experience. But I can’t help but wonder if I had had the opportunity to write creatively from the beginning of my teaching career, would I have been able to stay—emotionally, intellectually, physically— in that third grade classroom a bit longer and have written better, more urgent poems because of it? We talk about teacher burn out and teacher shortages; we bemoan teachers stuck in their ‘old ways’ or new teachers who lack experience. The arts can level the playing field, they invite all angles of experience and they provide a healthy container for reflecting on practice in order to remain in practice. I don’t think writing poems would have fixed Angelica’s problems at home or mine as her teacher, but poetry might have given me a healthy place to grieve; a critical container for making connections between Angelica’s family situation and wider societal challenges regarding poverty, urban violence, neglect, and isolation. I found a place to take my grief and uncertainty: poetry. Unfortunately, I found that container when I had already decided to leave my classroom for the solace and thinking space of graduate school. May more teachers have access to training in the arts in order to make poetic sense of the complicated experiences found in classrooms. Arts-integrated teaching and learning may provide greater opportunities to support teacher health and retention.