Thursday, April 23, 1998
Mrs. Clinton's Poetry Lesson;
At Johnson Junior High, a Two-Way Learning Experience
by Elizabeth Kastor
As the room
got stuffier and the TV lights hotter and the visiting dignitaries
were still on their way, on their way, the kids' bodies slumped
and their faces took on a uniform, stunned look.
staffers, glossy of hair and officious of manner, rearranged the
children and the chairs.
Within a classroom
at J. Hayden Johnson Junior High School in Southeast Washington,
a score of poetry-writing kids and their edgily proud teachers were
waiting yesterday afternoon for the arrival of Hillary Rodham Clinton
and three famous adult poets scheduled to read at the White House
last night. If you listened carefully, you could hear the approaching
rumble of their massive public relations machine. Then, at last,
the glossy-of-hair grew even more officious, and she was there!
whispered teacher Nancy Schwalb. "You cannot read too slowly!"
They were nervous,
but they managed to read slowly. They introduced themselves with
downcast eyes and practiced solemnity. In this school in the middle
of a public housing project, a dozen children read their poems,
bathed in the smiles of Clinton, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, former
laureates Robert Hass and Rita Dove and outgoing D.C. schools chief
"I am the
best there ever was," read ninth-grader Tyrone Freeman.
You might not
think I am. One minute you see me. Then the next, I'm not there.
Bam!!! I'm gone again. . . .
I am so perfect, so perfect that when you look at me, I make you
proud of yourself.
I am so full of joy that when I put up my Christmas lights, they
embarrass the sun.
But I am still normal, so normal that if I told you my name a thousand
times, you still wouldn't know who I am.
"In a way,
you know, it's a photo opportunity for the first lady," Schwalb
said later. "It's National Poetry Month and she needed a backdrop
of kids. But it's more than that. These kids have things to say,
and she needs to hear them more than anyone."
are about love and violence, the cosmic questions of adolescence
and urban life.
is in seventh grade. She read "In My Dream."
I fall into
paradise. . . .
Everything is perfect
And time doesn't exist --
No killing, no smoking, no alcoholics:
In my dream,
Everybody lives for eternity.
poetry was boring at first," one girl explained. "But
it's okay once you get the hang of it."
Later in the
day, the kids were scheduled to go to Borders Books downtown and
participate in a poetry slam, a popular form of public performance
in which poems are read and then judged Olympics-style, the judges
raising cards with ratings from 1 to 10. They were, purportedly,
just "practicing" for the slam when Clinton and the PR
machine happened to drop by.
of our kids, when they read at Borders, it's the first time they've
been to a bookstore, first time they've bought a book -- and for
some, believe it or not, it's the first time they've been on L Street,"
said Washington poet Kenneth Carroll, who runs the Humanities Council
of the District's City Lights program, which sponsors writing and
library programs in middle schools and public housing.
The goal of
the program is not necessarily to make great writers but rather
to help kids gain a bit more sense of control over written language,
verbal expression and their lives.
up poor," Carroll said, "and the real danger of it is
you begin to accept the isolation and the ethics and the values
of the four blocks in which you live. The isolation, to me, is one
of the most dangerous aspects of living in public housing."
six kids to a national poetry slam in Connecticut last weekend.
He wanted them to see other places, meet other people, realize that
there are other ways. Yesterday, some of the citizens of those other
places came to their world.
it interesting that some precariously hinged doors around the school
were miraculously fixed for the visit, Carroll remarked with a smile.
The drug dealers, too -- the regulars across the street -- were
nowhere to be seen.)
a slight seventh-grader from Kramer Middle School in a crisp white
shirt, stood and read:
When I die
I will be rain throwing water on plants,
And I will throw like a ball on fire,
And I will be famous,
And when I dance, people will dance too,
And when I draw, people will draw too.
And I will dance, with the remains
Of my mother's love in my pocket.
It will be a good night
And I will be in a white suit.
When the reading
was done, Clinton and the laureates came out of the audience (after
a good deal of fussing and chair-moving by the glossy-of-hair).
you I will not forget this," Pinsky told the students. "What
you are doing today encourages us and cheers us on. It is important
because it contributes to the great enterprise of memory."
that she is, Clinton got the poets to talk about how they began
to write, how they started their careers. And then she asked the
kids to talk about the City Lights program. "How has doing
this changed you, changed your life?" she asked.
What could they
say? Of course it had changed their lives: Several boys in succession
said that they found writing poetry helped them channel their anger,
control their temper and attitude. Asked by Clinton if poetry slams
gave them experience with public speaking, they said yes, of course.
Schwalb have been asked repeatedly over the years to explain the
purpose of what they are doing, to quantify the results.
you're improving their reading, writing and spelling skills, but
you can improve reading, writing and spelling skills a lot of different
ways," Schwalb said after Clinton and the grown-up poets left.
She is after something else, for both the kids and the rest of the
world. She wants them to hear their own voices, and for others to
hear them, too.
She and Carroll
know it matters. Are lives changed? Are kids "saved" by
poetry? Carroll laughed at the thought.
frank johnston, Poets laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove with
the first lady and a student at a reading of students' poems. Poet
Robert Hass and student Antoine Wade at the reading yesterday, which
was part of the District's City Lights program.
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