AFTERWORD Water BY JENNY BROWNE What took me completely by surprise was that it was me my voice, in my mouth. Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room” I have been sitting on the floor with a class of first-graders for nearly an hour, when a girl waves both hands wildly above her head. “Miss,” she exclaims, “I am so thirsty with talk.” We are working our way towards metaphors, but her inspired declaration reminds me once again that these students don’t really need me to “teach” them poetry. They just need some water. In this essay, water is a metaphor for encouragement. It is fuel. It is forgiveness and celebration. In most classrooms, the girl’s grammar would be corrected. But correcting that kind of fresh language leap when we are talking poetry would only insure that no sparkling words splash so freely from her mouth next time. As the guest poet in her class, I am a permission slip, cheerleader, and grateful witness to this kind of “talk.” Doing this work in classrooms around Texas has convinced me that most students are thirsty for a safe place to explore the music of words. They are thirsty enough to dive deep into meaning, to rub different ideas together until they shine. They are thirsty with their own experiences. My job is to point them towards the places where these poetic seeds already wait. And some flowers grow and some flowers die. Because some people didn’t water the flowers. Gina Gina Dang’s family comes from Vietnam, and they work as shrimpers in Galveston Bay. She is in an English as a Second Language program in Galveston that serves students from some twenty different countries. During a recent workshop in her class, I was struck by the second-grade students’ grasp of thoughtful word choice that poems require. As limited English speakers, they must grapple daily for just the right word to use in the classroom as well as on the playground. They also know something about silence. Silence like fog The silence is my rough rock. Silence like one of the deep in the forest. Silence like alone in the darkness. Silence is my half of my alone life. Jennifer Jennifer is this Korean student’s “English name.” Like others in the class, she uses it to avoid mispronunciation of her given name and to fit in with her American classmates. On the first day of the residency I tell the class that a poem is a place where they can name the way they see the world. “If it is your experience and feeling,” I explain, “how can someone say it is right or wrong?” Adolphus quite doesn’t believe me. “I can write about Wal-Mart?” he asks doubtfully. “Why do you want to write about Wal-Mart?” I reply and inwardly cringe. “Because I can go there with my mother,” he whispers. He arrived in Texas only weeks earlier, and was reunited with his mother after several years apart due to war in their native Liberia. “Sure you can write about Wal-Mart,” I tell him, and remember my own return home after living for a year in neighboring Sierra Leone. The first week back I burst into confused tears trying to decide among the twenty-some kinds of peanut butter on a Wal-Mart shelf. At least for these first weeks, Wal-Mart is Adolphus’ metaphor for the United States, for the overwhelming parade of new things passing by his wide eyes. I like my feet. They help me to walk. I like my hands. They help me to choose something with mother at Wal-Mart. I like my eyes. They help me to see a butterfly. Adolphus For Hyun Moon Song, living in the United States is watching the World Wrestling Federation on television. He in sists that I address him as Stone Cold Steve Austin during class. As a warm-up exercise we all write our names vertically and use the letters to begin each sentence and see what is “hiding inside” them. Hyun makes an intricate list of W.W.F. personalities. I rarely restrict student topics, but have been known to put a moratorium on Pokemon, Disneyland, and rainbows. This, however, was the first time I got to censor the W.W.F., at least for one afternoon. Brooding, beautiful Shumalia Virani sits next to “Stone Cold” and writes, “Sure I’m from Pakistan but I / hate to fight…. I sit on my rock / to get my angry out. / I am like a horse…. I kick / and roar and everyone stares.” Next to her Vivian Byrd tries out her given name and prints, “Jinju means pearl and / I like my name a lot. Do / not think that you are dumb / just look to your / faith and heart.” Their E.S.L. class is a well-watered oasis, but many of these students spend most of the school day feeling dumb, or simply misunderstood. Our search for their poetic voices provides a focus on language away from grammar, spelling, and even the insistent sing-song end-rhyme that defines poetry for many young people. The occasional verb tense confusion of these young poets ironically illuminates the “at-oneness” of time so common in lyric poetry. It heightens moments of singing poetic attention and seems eerily appropriate for the immense change happening all at once in their young lives. I remember I never drank milk when I was little…. I remember I can’t speak English at all. I remember when I arrive in the California airport and said to American Army, ABCDE…. When I was six years old. I remember I learned English. And now I live in United States. Jin Woo Whether he knows it or not, the structure of Jin Woo Kim’s poem equates living with being able to communicate and more importantly with being heard. Sometimes I try to remember the epiphany of those initial efforts at speech, that first moment when the word “juice” produced a cold sweet drink. Indeed, something transformational happens when we are able to put our experience into words and be understood. 38 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 21, 2000
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