Empowerment through Language...

Friday, April 10, 2015

Teaching as Legacy

The magic that transpires in a classroom, no matter the age of the student, is the fuel that pushes all teachers through to satisfaction in their chosen profession. As we see the fruit of our sharing come forth in our students, even students who are adults, the knowledge that we have done good work soothes our souls and brings smiles to our faces.

As the workshops coordinator at the Syracuse YMCA's Downtown Writers Center, I have experienced the joy of curating a program for tween and teen writers called the Young Authors Academy. Having passed our third anniversary this winter, we are growing and serving the needs of talented young writers in the genres of poetry, fiction, and dramatic writing. We started with six teens who were eager to meet every Saturday morning and share work, create new work, and learn about the fundamental aspects of creative writing beyond what they could receive in school. All six of those students are now in college, two of them majoring in creative writing.

In our winter session, we enrolled 28 students, grades 6 - 11. Some of these students have been with us for nearly our entire history, week after week, when SAT prep, school musicals, marching band, track, all-county chorus or orchestra, family vacations, or the flu do not intercede. The students requested for longer seasonal sessions, expanding from four 8-week sessions to as many 10-week sessions we can fit into a calendar year. When the group grew larger, the students asked for the classes to lengthen from 90 minutes to 2 hours so they could work together longer. On Saturdays!

These are eager young talents. They are also really good to each other, for each other. They have developed keen eyes for critique and understand the distinct difference in connotation between critique and criticism

YAA is an inclusive environment, with the students being the first to say, "You belong here." There are young people who are home schooled, from suburban schools, and from the Syracuse City School District. We have had students from Viet Nam, Liberia, Jordan, the burbs, the inner city, students who are on the Autism spectrum. We have high achievers and those who are bored and/or disinterested in school. They are multi-talented and remarkable. And they are, in my most often stated mantra, on fire to write. This is the program that I wish I had when I was in high school. We are able to support the voices and imaginations of the next generation of writers, and so much more. It is more than writing, although we are very serious about that and they have to work hard.

We have created an anthology of their work as a fundraiser, The Library of Lost Thoughts. The funds supported the poetry award for the 2014 Central New York Book Awards, and so inspiring that they embraced the mission. We have students whose parents have studied (or do so currently) at the DWC. We have started an internship program for juniors and seniors to meet their community service component of their graduation requirements. And this summer we will welcome back one of our graduates, who will be a rising sophomore in college as our program summer intern.

Recently, two of our YAA participants, twin sisters, announced in our sharing circle that they would be moving and no longer able to join us on Saturdays. Each of their colleagues offered words of encouragement, statements of value to the whole that the young women offer, and general kindnesses as a send-off into what would be their new phase of life. It was lovely and authentic. Then we split up to go to our respective classrooms, genre-specific. The poets,  including one of the twins, followed me.

Since it was going to be the young poet's last day with us, or so we all thought, I asked her to choose the writing prompt for the day. After a brief consultation with two of her friends, she assigned, "Let's write our wills."

At first everyone was a bit surprised but this led to a short, meaningful discussion on death and impermanence, how important now, the moment is, how precious.

And then we all got busy. There was little more than the sound of pens and pencils pressing the page, tapping keys, and the chorus of seven poets breathing.

About 20 minutes later, we had each drafted our poetic last wills and testaments. One of the poets, among several who are skilled in both fiction and verse, chose a fictional persona who also had a most deft turn in the lyric tale. The others were more from the self but none was anything but heartfelt, stunning, and well-crafted. And the emotion rose, as did my pride for these wonderful beings with whom I am privileged to share what I know of writing.

I was the last to share my draft. After listening to each of these bright lights, as I always name them in my thoughts, I was just full of their language, authenticity, heart. As soon as I started the title, I was whimpering. I continued with falters and tears but got through the poem. All of us were overcome with emotion that had built through the near 2 hours together. We cried and we huddled in a hug. We declared how much we all love each other and then we sat down to breathe deeply, led by one of the marvelous young women. 

Then we told sick, stupid jokes for 10 minutes to be ready to walk back into the world. It worked.

I will give them each a copy of the poem when I see them in another week when the spring session starts. They will be ready for more work and I will be ready to shepherd them through the hills and valleys of being a poet. What more could one ask for, anyway?

So here I give you the poem. You will know the next generation of voice:

Last Will and Testament
      (as it stands today)

To my brightest lights, my brilliant young poets, 
I leave whisper phones to deliver the majesty 
of your own words directly into your own ears.

I offer the jasmine perfume of the Santa Cruz mountains 
and July’s insistent stargazer lilies as inspiration, 
the hum of wood bees searching for weakness in the rafters,

and the sway of mature maples new with leaf in May. 
I gift you with all of the language that has held me captive 
and astounded, frustrated, and empowered throughout this life.

To you, the next generation infected with this necessary 
and crucial craft, I offer every thesaurus, dictionary, 
and repository of words to heal and hound, reveal and belie

the evidence of folly and foible, wonder and confusion. 
I place the power of the pen in your nimble hands 
to blare and blaze, to confront and console, to ring

as Quasimoto’s bells of love and longing, outrage 
and remorse, laughter and sorrows, the truths 
that we, as poets, behold as self-evident

and are compelled to grace to the unseen and unknown 
among those with whom and away from we walk. 
I give you all I love, all I believe, and all I hope

to learn for you will be the ones to continue 
this ancient and immediate are. You are then stars 
the sun, the pulse of all that is true and urgent.

Keep each other whole and ready to face the world. 
Shine each other’s armor and fuel each other’s lamps. 
It is you trust and who keep me breathing.