The Benefit of Digging Beneath my Ribs
In order to make sure the unrelenting momentum of the school year doesn’t compress my students into a heads-bent-to-their-shoes, do-everything-you-can-to-make-it-to-the-weekend forward march, I try to compel them to stop and think. Try to make them reflect, to look at where they are and where they’ve been. I often repeat the dictum writers slow down the world, by which I mean what makes a writer different - deeper - is a willingness to pause and observe, to take a second look and a third, and to peel back layer after layer of meaning in order to strike at the core.
I’ve long operated under the governing philosophy I can’t ask students to do what I won’t do myself. I always loved the coaches who ran laps with us, the teachers who clearly read the books and who, instead of reciting rote from the Teacher’s Edition, promulgated their own analysis. Thus, when I ask my students to write, I write too, wrestling along with them. When I ask them to slow down and reflect, I ask myself to do the same.
What follows is a poem that grew out of a Thursday night workshop at The Neutral Zone taught by Maggie Hanks, a bold and insightful member of the collegiate performance poetry troupe Ann Arbor Wordworks. She asked us to think of someone who doesn’t like us very much and then to write in the voice that person might imagine we speak in. Challenging. In fact, brutal. Definitely an exercise that slows the world. Here’s what I came up with:
She’s the lone screw-up in here
The only kid not trying. Probably screws up all her classes, probably screws up everything in her life - I mean, look at her, clearly she can’t afford the clothes Audrey has, or Brittany. I bet she doesn’t have a homecoming date. I bet Saturday night, she’ll be at home feeling sorry for herself, complaining she has nothing to write about. Or maybe she’ll go out drinking with her other loser friends, get wasted so she can forget how she’s the one kid failing when just about everybody else is getting an A. Look at her hiding back there, trying to think her pathetic attempt to pile her backpack on her desk will make her invisible. I will call her out. I will let everyone in this class - all the pretty girls with Uggs and seventy-five dollar sweatshirts and homecoming dates and a waiting list just in case, and all the pretty boys with pretty cars who will never talk to her - I will let them know she’s the one kid unprepared this week. The one kid who can’t make a fifteen-minute effort to write something to share with us. Maybe that’ll shame her enough to prod her from her laziness cocoon, the dilapidated gloomville she wants to hide in. I will not let her hide. I am that singular pompous jerk who refuses to believe there’s such a thing as a kid who doesn’t want to write. I am that jerk because I know I’m good. I read my poems in here just to show these kids how good I am and I make fun of their dating problems and their texting neuroses because I want the losers to know, sorry, your little Emo-protection clam-up insurance plan will not work in this room. You know who the Emperor of Coolness is in this school and I’m not about to tolerate loser-ation in this Creative Writing nation. I will get up in your grill, girl, and expose your loserness to the world because that’s the only way to exorcise it. We need every pathetic, humiliating no-homecoming-date, no-money detail blasted onto the blackboard in big letters so we can beat the loser out of you. Plus, you know, when we hear about your sorry life, we’ll all feel a touch better about ourselves. So, no girl, I will not be letting you hide. I will shine the spotlight on you and if you don’t like it, tough, this is an elective class, you shouldn’t have signed up.
Dang. Talk about an unflattering self-portrait.
Talk about painful both to read and write.
Why go through an exercise like this?
Why bum myself out? Scare myself?
Because as a result of writing this poem, every time I interact with the student who inspired it, I am now conscious of how she might perceive what I say and do. I am now making a concerted effort to try and understand the world from her perspective. And maybe that's why she’s doing a lot better in class. No longer failing. Smiling every once in a while. Maybe even glad she signed up.
** NOTE ** Speaking of signing up The Ann Arbor Book Festival is offering a special fall Writer’s Conference on Saturday, November 14th at Pioneer High School. A spectacular slate of instructors includes Eileen Pollack and Michael Byers from U-M’s #2 nationally ranked MFA program in Creative Writing, as well as local poets and incomparable workshop leaders Keith Taylor, Scott Beal and Susan Hutton; and I’ll be offering a seminar on how to present/perform your work in public. The day’s a great value @ $95 including 3 workshop sessions, lunch, a panel discussion on publishing options and a participant reading. $50 for students. To register and/or glean additional info, go to aabookfestival.org.
Jeff Kass teaches Creative Writing at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and directs the Literary Arts Programs at the Neutral Zone, including the VOLUME Youth Poetry Project which meets every Thursday night at 7pm. He will post new blog entries here every Tuesday and Thursday morning throughout the school year.