Skinny poem: Lunch in the school cafeteria during COVID-19

A Skinny Poem, on Day Twelve of National Poetry Month. For me this is an indelible image.

Lunch in the School Cafeteria During COVID-19

Unmasked, they sit, all facing the same direction to eat
children
separated
silent
staring
children
spectral
dystopian
automatons
children
all facing the same direction, they sit to eat, unmasked

*******

with thanks to Denise Krebs for the inspiration in #VerseLove on Ethical ELA.

How to write a Skinny Poem:

  • Write to a strong image, experience, emotion, event, a work of art….consider the image you want to write about and describe the situation in the first line.
  • Only lines 1 and 11 have multiple words. Lines 2-10 are each one word only
  • Line 2, 6, and 10 are each the same word.
  • Line 11 uses the same words as line 1, but it can be rearranged for your purposes.
  • You can also write multiple Skinnys for one longer poem.

Photo poem: The end of the world

with thanks to Margaret Simon who hosted Day Six of #verselove at Ethical ELA, inviting participants to write poems inspired by photos, around the them “A World Trying to Deal.” She included links to commemorative photographs taken during the pandemic shutdown.

I found my inspiration here: 2020 Photos: The Year in the COVID-19 Pandemic (WBUR News). If you scroll, you can find the sidewalk chalk drawing in the play area of an apartment building. Toys lie abandoned beside this chalked message in a child’s handwriting: “the end of the world.”

Here’s my poem, on Day Seven of National Poetry Month.

the end of the world 

blacktop oracle
scrawled in chalk
draped with a lifeless jump rope
attended by an ownerless bike
chalk left lying behind

the end of the world

is how it felt, Children

one year later
let us return
and prophesy
on how we can color it
new

Photo: Debra Sweet. CC BY

Vaccination poem

Written on Day Two of the effects, for Day Two of National Poetry Month

first time, no sweat
carry on as usual
aware of soreness only
when reaching up
into the cabinet

second time, sweat
crawl back to bed
chilled to the bone
insidious feverish price
paid for immunity


Photo: NIAID. CC BY

Digging for awe: Golden shovel poems

I recently wrote a post for the CCIRA Professional Development Blog on the sometimes spirit-crushing work of literacy education. I will not list all of the contributing factors here; I will just say that there are many, especially during this long year of COVID-19. Prior to to writing the post, when asked what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”

As I wrote, and as is usually the case, the path became clearer: Make room for awe.

That is my guiding “one little word” (OLW) for the year, see. And maybe for the rest of my life…

Yesterday I spoke with a colleague who will continue teaching virtually until the year ends in June, for students whose parents have chosen this option. She spoke of awe in regard to the Google Classroom chat feature: “So many more kids share their thoughts this way, more I’ve ever seen in person. I’m in awe of how much they have to say and how they encourage each other. We use the chat all the time now.”

This means students are writing more, which makes my heart sing. If ever there is a conduit for awe, it is writing.

Example: Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman? Who credits her childhood teachers and her school for valuing this kind of expressive, artistic, move-the-mountains writing?

I’ve been lamenting the loss of meaningful writing in elementary schools in my corner of the world, just when it it’s most needed—the writing workshop model having fallen out of favor in the last few years for an embedded, formulaic approach around a topic at a time. That is another whole story; suffice it to say that I am in awe of teachers and students finding their way back to writing that matters.

All of which brings me to Golden Shovel poems. It’s a form I’ve been playing with for about a year. It holds great appeal on a number of levels, practical, creative, metaphorical…the idea of mining for the nuggets of gold, the diamonds that lie within, often so unexpected, yet so important.

A teacher might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying, even a line a classmate has written—anything, really. Not necessarily as a response to the work itself, but latching onto any line that strikes them with its beauty, or pierces their hearts with its poignance, or stirs their souls with its power, to create something new and personally meaningful from it. Make room for awe…

Try digging with the Golden Shovel yourself. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem (or the beginning word, if you prefer). Your poem may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.

I chose this line from Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.

Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,

tossed dice, never quite landing, as

we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.

In the spinning we still loved as we grieved

and we’ll go on, won’t we, 

even as we did when odds against us grew.

And this one, from the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.

Now, who are we

and what should we do,

here where the sun shines not

and Earth’s colors fade.

Even so

consider how easily

we glide from

that room to this,

enduring, rather than living, life

And so I pass the Golden Shovel.

Here’s to the awe of your own discoveries.

Happy digging.

Photo: Golden shovels. Alachua County. CC-BY

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

Needles

At the end of February, the COVID-19 vaccine was made available to teachers in my state.

My district went to work immediately, setting up sites and online registration.

The quickest appointment I could get was at a high school gym.

Upon entering, seeing the tables set all around the perimeter, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu, sort of.

Flashback to another school gym. For just a second, I was there in a long line of people. Standing with my mother, my little sister.

To be vaccinated against swine flu.

I’d nearly forgotten.

This COVID rollout was so different. For one thing, masks. Another, no long lines; still not safe. I stood six feet behind one person for a just few seconds in the hallway outside the gym before he was directed to enter. Slight pause, and I was permitted. Someone pointed me to a table across the room. After giving my name and getting my official paper, I was told to sit in one of the six or so well-spaced chairs in the center of the gym. I didn’t think to count how many immunization stations were set up around the walls, mostly because I didn’t have time; I sat for less than a minute before someone came over to point me to one of them. Quick review of my info, protocol of a few questions, and the deed was done. Barely felt it before the administrator tossed the syringe into the biohazard container and congratulated me. She gave me a little CDC card. Moderna. A jolt of cheer in the knowledge that this is the vaccine Dolly Parton funded; she got her shot that same day. A layer of comfort, somehow. I’d just written of Dolly and one of her songs two days before. It’s like being blood-sisters now. Kind of.

From the time I arrived to the time I left: less than ten minutes.

Couldn’t help remembering, as I walked out into the warm sunshine of an imminent spring, all the hours spent waiting in doctor’s offices as a child, getting an allergy shot in each arm every week, then every other week, then at home when my mother was eventually allowed to give them. How my mother’s health issues involved so many hospital stays and doctor’s visits that her friends dubbed her “Pins and Needles,” a double entendre on her vocation as a seamstress.

I walked on, considering my own shadow as it glided along the parking lot pavement, mulling how needles prick the arm only for an instant in the aim of protection and preservation and then are gone, whereas needles in the memory can provoke reactions and pain for a lifetime. I feel the swelling of many stories, there.

But just as I did when I was small, I waited the allotted time to be sure there was no reaction to the injection. Once upon a time, my dad waited with me; now it’s my husband driving my inoculated self home. He wants to drive me back for the last one.

In the end, it’s just a matter of doing what must be done, and going on.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 14, I am writing around a word beginning with letter n. Amazing, the number of associations and memories threading through one simple, sharp word.

March 13th

Friday the 13th of March, 2020, when school dismissed,
we had no idea we wouldn’t be returning.

Not to the building.

Not to life as we knew it.

Not to teaching as we knew it.

We left mountains of work undone behind us.

We faced mountains looming before us, the likes of which we’d never seen.

A mountain of my masks

In the maelstrom of so much change, we learned.

We learned we could.

We learned that some things, the important things,
never change.

Message from a student on my link

Saturday the 13th of March, 2021: Most of us have had our first vaccination and are getting the second.

We are preparing for all students to return to campus
on Monday,
except the children of parents who have opted
to keep them virtual until June.

Last March 13th, we thought it would only be for a week.
Maybe two.

It’s been exactly one year.

Today, March 13th, let us celebrate:

We did enough.

We had enough.

We were enough.

We are enough.

It is enough, knowing our why.

The children. Always our why.

Just sayin’. This was shared via text among my colleagues.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 13, I am writing around a word beginning with letter m. Just so happens to coincide with the anniversary.

What’s in a word

Perhaps you have taken part in the “one little word” tradition for the New Year as a means of living more intentionally and reflectively, maybe letting it guide your writing. At the beginning of 2020, I had a word in mind for the year.

Reclamation.

Here’s what I wrote, ten weeks before COVID-19 shut us down:

Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.

At the end of 2020, I have to reflect on what my original vision of reclamation was, and what it became.

Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control. At the time, those words were mirroring 2019, when my husband was recovering from cardiac arrest and two heart surgeries. We spent weeks at the hospital in late summer. I never imagined the pandemic lying just ahead…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Caring for my husband took precedence over returning to work when school resumed that fall. When I did return, I fought a daily battle to catch up, to hit any kind of stride, as 2020 dawned. In February I broke my foot. In mid-March, the governor closed our schools due to COVID. In May, George Floyd was killed. America erupted. COVID continued erupting across the world. The election…really, one runs out of words. Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to to what you can, what’s most important, for that given day.

Reclamation, I wrote, involves choices. Both large and small. Every day.

One of my original intents for the year resembled a true environmental reclamation project: repairs and improvements around the house. Did I succeed? As I was home a lot more than ever before, thanks to the pandemic, yes, I accomplished a good bit. There’s just always more to do. One thing (don’t we know) often leads to another.

In 2020 I meant to write more. Did I? Most definitely. It wasn’t the type of writing I envisioned. I thought I would finally complete some things I started in years past. My blog post productivity increased. I ended up writing a lot more poetry than I have in decades. What does that say about the power of poetry in coping with powerlessness, inertia, darkness, even despair? Psychologists avow its therapeutic benefits. Poetry-writing invokes calmness, healing, strength. It calls to the spirit in a unique way. There’s something about the rhythms and breaks, something in the metaphor and imagery, in the cadence, the musicality, that soothes the soul and brings release. Not to mention the good old-fashioned value of hard work in trying to hammer a thing out, especially if there’s a desire to create something beautiful, meaningful.

Perhaps the most interesting take I had on “reclamation” in January 2020 had to do with teaching—before the scramble of completely reinventing it:

I write this not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny, but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories.

—I bolded the part I find most haunting, in retrospect. When I wrote those words I had no clue that children would be learning from home for months, that families would be scrambling to manage it, that devices and hotspots would have to be distributed on a massive scale, that people would lose jobs and loved ones to COVID, that food insecurity would become so widespread, that crisis and survival would keep some students from their learning, let alone a love of it.

What remains true, more so than ever, is that data can’t capture it all. We do need to know families and their stories. We need to know each other’s. From what else are compassion and empathy born? How else will we move forward, together? Reclamation in this sense involves pushing away whatever encroaches and consumes. It involves building something new, taking back what is being lost, reasserting rights…I am thinking of teachers now as much as of students, submerged by systems, structures, checklists, machinery. Of reclaiming a sense of humanity from processes, protocols, and programming which are, in the end punitive. When, if not now? Was a time ever “riper”? I wrote: It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time. The point being, start.

I also wrote: We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

I have never been more grateful for the outlet of writing and the writing communities that feel like home to me. Writing taps an inner strength we may not realize is there; sharing the stories knits us to one another by our heartstrings. In a time of distance, isolation, stress and anxiety, with spiking mental health issues, connection is ever more vital. Therapists say that one of the best things a person can do to reduce stress is to write or journal (writing therapy and poetry therapy are real things). In the action of framing thoughts, or facing fears, we collect emotional resources, resilience, and creativity lying dormant or hidden as we wormhole our way through. One more line from my pre-COVID January 2020 vision of reclamation: In this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more? Here’s a point to ponder: a study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK (June 2020) says that children are turning to imaginative writing more than ever as an outlet for self-expression, creativity, and well-being, now that they have time and freedom to do so…

Life is, after all, writing us. In the words of Albert S. Rossi, clinical psychologist and Christian educator, which I’ve read before and rediscovered this week: We don’t live life. Life lives us.

As the page turns from 2020 to 2021, we’ll see where life leads. It may be in charge of the story, but we are in charge of the craftsmanship.

On that note, I am thinking twice about choosing a word for the new year. Maybe I’ll just see what it wants to say for itself.

In the meantime, resting more, reading more, singing more, praying more absolutely helps. Seek more help when needed. Be more gentle with yourself (a lesson I am still trying to learn).

Keep on writing alongside life.

*******

with a debt of gratitude to Two Writing Teachers and the ongoing Slice of Life Story Challenge which is, above all, a joy

and to the gathering at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, a divining rod of inspiration

Diverted

So the holiday ended.

I energized myself for the return to work.

Bag packed. Masks washed and ready for the week.

My day mapped out in the planner: Lessons to review. Emails to send. Trainings to schedule. Reports to complete and submit. Meetings to attend. Agendas to make…

Quick check on the weather. In a word: Yuck. Raincoat and boots needed for morning bus duty and filling in at carpool arrival afterward.

Lunch packed (Note to self: Go to grocery store ASAP…).

oh yeah, my temperature. I’ve learned I am usually below normal, in the 97.7 range (at the moment 97.8, but I just sipped my coffee. Kids arriving at school in heated cars can register as high as 105…we have a fleet of touchless thermometers that must be left out in the cold for a few minutes to calibrate. We will have to perform several rechecks before verifying a child does NOT have a fever and may enter the building…).

Enter my temperature in the district website and answer the COVID questions for this cheery message: Thank you. You have passed your daily health screening. You may report to your worksite. Remember your 3 W’s: Wear a cloth face covering over your nose and mouth. Wait six feet apart. Avoid close contact. Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Have a nice day!

Um.

But I am ready to go, with time to set up before the arrival bell rings.

Except.

I forgot I needed gas.

4 miles to E.

That’s okay. See, the gas station is only about a mile up the road here.

I pull in, happy to see no one is at the pumps: I’ll still make it in plenty of time!

There is, of course, a reason:

Every. Single. Pump.

I sit for a moment with rain sheeting across my windshield…

…nothing for it but to go back home and tell my son he has to take me to work.

—He has no gas in his car, either.

But he does have gas in Pa-Pa’s 1989 blue Cadillac DeVille. With the dented-in back door on the driver’s side where the boy cut the turn into the garage too close (it is a LONG car. And that’s one of the few times I’ve seen my young Cadillac Man cry).

There’s more to this story, because the unforeseen complications didn’t stop there; these were but a harbinger for a day full of absurd and unexpected turns. My neat list in the planner … poof. Suffice it to say I texted admin that I’d be late. I made it just as the tardy bell rang.

In an afternoon meeting—online, naturally—the facilitators (battling internet connectivity issues) closed with this message:

I did not throw my laptop of out the window (after all, the laptop nor the window belonged to me…).

I just kept on flowing.

Even when there was no gas.

A reminder that I’m only going so far on my own resources. With my best-laid plans that can disintegrate without warning.

Willing to be led by the process of life…

Even when diverted, to an absurd degree, with plot twists right and left…

And it was sort of beautiful, in its way, arriving at my destination in a vintage Cadillac with a willing and loving driver.

Lead photo: Gas pump. Mike Mozart. CC BY.

My Thanksgiving song

Thanksgiving Day, 1987.

My boyish husband and I have come to eat with my parents. There’s a lot on my mind as I carry dishes from the kitchen to the dining room table. My father’s voice drifts from the adjoining living room, mingling with the Macy’s parade-babble on TV. He’s conversing with my husband, who’s planning to enter the ministry. Beyond the old lace drapes of the picture window where I sat so often as a child, the November day is like a sepia print. Browns of dead grass and leaves, oyster sky, skeletal trees bathed in pale, unassuming sunlight.

Then…another voice.

Singing.

Coming from the television.

I turn to face it, spellbound. I cannot move. I stand stone-still, between portals, as everything else fades away…there’s only that voice. Almost too pure to bear. It wrenches something inside of me, twists and pierces so that tears spring to my eyes… a man singing “God on high, hear my prayer, in my need, you have always been there…”

He sings of protection for a young man in troubled times, afraid, resting nearby. Of summers dying, one by one. He is willing to die for the young man— “he is only a boy”— if God will let him live and “bring him home.”

I stand, tears flowing, aching to the core of my soul, not wanting it to stop, knowing that I am somehow irrevocably changed.

******

The singer was Colm Wilkinson, portraying Jean Valjean from the Broadway musical Les Misérables. The song “Bring Him Home” is a prayer for young Marius, who’s fallen in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. Valjean watches over the sleeping Marius at a barricade during the June Rebellion, or the 1830 Paris Uprising. Broad view: On top of harsh economic times, crop failures, and food shortages, a cholera epidemic killed over 100,000 across France. The poor, especially in the city of Paris, were devastated; they blamed the government and retaliated.

I learned much later that the song was especially written for Wilkinson’s tenor voice—a profound marriage of artistry. And revision. Lyricist Herbert Kretzmer struggled with the English translation. He completed it seventeen days before the show opened. Upon hearing its first rehearsal, the cast was blown away. One member, playing the Bishop, said:“You told us at the beginning that you couldn’t keep God out of the show. But you didn’t say you’d booked God to sing this song.”

My husband eventually took me to see (to hear?) Les Misérables on Broadway. My awe has never diminished; so many songs are hauntingly beautiful, meant to pull on the soul with deep themes of loss, love, faith, sacrifice, death…and, above all, redemption.

I’ve been thinking of Thanksgiving in the time of COVID, how life and gatherings— and parades—are changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We are not allowed to sing at school, for fear of spreading the virus.

But some things never change. We never really know what is to come in a day, a week, a year…or the next moment.

Like Valjean, I grow older, with my heart turned toward the next generation in prayer for preservation. For their peace and joy. My own boys, now grown… the firstborn followed his father into the pastorate. The youngest is a worship leader. A musician and singer. Yes, how soon the summers fly, on and on…the boys weren’t even born yet on that long-ago Thanksgiving when I stood before the TV screen in my childhood home, transfixed by a cloaked Irish tenor in the streets of New York City, as snow began to fly…

God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there

It remains my Thanksgiving song, every day.

Always.

God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there
He is young, he’s afraid
Let him rest, heaven-blessed
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son
The summers die, one by one
How soon they fly, on and on
And I am old and will be gone

Bring him peace, bring him joy
He is young, he is only a boy
You can take, you can give
Let him be, let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

Songwriters: Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg/Herbert Kretzmer

Trees know

Yesterday they came back.

Just a few of them.

The others will have their turn, soon. For now they wait in the wings and on the screens…

In a month when masks are normally worn for celebrating, they came masked for protection—of others.

Several of us stood as sentinels in the misty gray morning, waiting, also masked. Gloved, thermometers ready, when the first bus rolled up and its door opened to release three children.

Another bus carried only one.

But when the first child passed inspection and entered the building, the gathered staff cheered. Applauded. Like welcoming a hero home.

They are heroes.

These kindergarteners, these first, second, third graders in their colorful masks, quietly navigating the building, sitting socially-distanced (alone) at lunch… I suspect these images are etched deep in my brain for the remainder of my days.

I saw this verse on a StoryPeople print by Brian Andreas (1993):

When I die, she said, I’m coming back as a tree with deep roots & I’ll wave my leaves at the children every morning on their way to school & whisper tree songs at night in their dreams. Trees with deep roots know about the things that children need.

I think about how trees

help us breathe

cleanse the air

provide refuge

absorb storms

soften hard edifices

beautify

welcome

are calming

are cooling

change with the seasons, yet remain constant

color the world

Tree leaves do whisper. Trees talk to each other (they do). They live in groups and look out for one another.

They carry the stories they live within them. You can read them, in their rings.

I cannot decide which is best, to be the tree with deep roots, waving my leaves at the children on the way to school, singing in their dreams…or to be the child, asleep, hearing the tree-song…

I stand, a sentinel in the gray silence of the empty bus loop, masked, gloved, thermometer in hand, watching bits of red and yellow and fiery orange swirling through the air as if stirred by an unseen hand… tree confetti, celebrating life, letting go in order to hold on through the coming winter, who knows how dark or cold, and I’m seized by the sudden desire to run into those dancing colors…

—I am bits of both.

*******

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the invitation to share on Slice of Life Tuesdays and for also knowing about the things that children need. They, too, carry their stories within them…

Photo: Donnie Ray Jones. CC BY