Over the past three days, I have spent time with Celena Glenn and Marty McConnell, co-teaching poetry workshops to 9th and 10th graders at Huntington High School in Huntington, Long Island. It has been an interesting trip.
First, let me say that the students were wonderful; inspirational. Young people almost always are. They are – even when acting out – in such a stage of self-discovery that one cannot help but be taken in by their raw honesty; their entire emotional co-operation.
Unfortunately, this is seldom something one can say about adults; and it would seem that adults in charge of the education and development of teens, routinely forget what being teenaged was about for them. True it is a different 15 year old alive today, from the the 15 year old I was, and radically different from the 15 year old of 30 years ago. Still, adolescence is always a time of testing limits, of foraging for acceptable lines of self-expression, of racing to the edge and teetering on it. As such, adolescents often clash with adults. They must; but even at their greatest loggerheads, what keeps a healthy dialogue alive between youth and the crotchety adults they will become , is respect.
I began this entry with the intent of recalling the experience and the confrontations with Huntington High faculty of the past few days, but I find that maybe this entry serves a better purpose by not bitching about my frustrations there, but by going directly to what I learned, what I felt, what was reinforced for me.
Most people will agree that much is amiss with our education system. The vast majority of our students get all the way to college without the sort of reading comprehension necessaryto make them functionally critical members of our society. The pathology of violence that is a part of our larger culture, plays itself out in schools daily in the form of a budding sociopathy – that violence, being too thick a gruel to be processed in the emotional digestive tract of our youth. Further (though this is admitted to by precious few), the opportunities afforded by education are not equal; and differ radically according to class, race and geography. Perhaps most importantly, the education system (and the administrators, counselors and teachers who find themselves entreated with a task, they are seldom given the correct tools to accomplish), appears to have been designed with no regard as to the vast differences in human development that one might encounter in individuals between the ages of 5 and 18. Standardized tests and curricula that seek to do no more than prepare a workforce (actual critical education be damned), are the norm and more and more enforced on public schools even when radical and brilliant alternatives are available.
Small wonder then, that youth throughout the country and definitely at Huntington High, have no respect for their teachers and administrators. Small wonder that youth are disdainful of those teachers who are willing only to play by rules that do not enrich their (the youths’) lives. They act out. They cuss. They are lethargic. They call in bomb threats (this happened on Wednesday). And when one tries to address this by sponsoring a campaign of non-tolerance against “potty-mouth language” (their words, not mine), is this not the grossest example of treating symptoms and pretending that the disease never existed?
So Huntington High gets its panties all in a knot because I use a poem with the word ‘shit’ in it (Willie Perdomo’s “Shit to Write about”), and because Celena says something about ‘blue balls’ in a poem; suggesting that they’ll have a more difficult time getting students to respect their campaign and respect their faculty if they see that “sort of language” condoned in the poetry workshops. So apparently, I walk into Huntington High and in three days have the power to endorse foul language and create a climate of disrespect that will then get completely out of hand. No-one thinks that the thousand-odd students booing the faculty in the auditorium when they try to speak is indicative of a more systemic failing that stopping the word “shit” in their hallways will not solve; and when you take away the outlet of language as a mode for expression (a young man was suspended because he said ‘fuck’ out loud, in disgust because he couldn’t get into his locker), how do youth act out? I’m sure most can fill in the blanks here with any of a number of Columbine-esque anecdotes.
What we do as poets then, and when we do it in the context of going into schools is more important than ever. In the world we now live in of fixed elections, right-wing, capitalist Christianity, that gets into bed with right-wing capitalist Judaism, that rolls around with right-wing narrow Islam, to feed us ideas of what we’re supposed to think about sex, about foreigners, about tomorrow, about money, we are potentially the valve that relieves the pressure; the pressure that a need to talk, to scream, to communicate, to cry, creates. Dialogue is important with one another and with the youth who already have the solutions in their heads if we listen to them enough, if we create spaces for them to share them with us; and to share without judgement, censorship or censure. Every day, educators must re-evaluate the ‘whys’ of their teaching, seek out new pedagogies and grind through new ways of understanding and communicating. It is our responsibility to figure out how we plan to get to the next place; to help our children get there. It is critically important. We live in a dangerous time. Goddamn! shit! fuck! we need to bequeath them a new way to learn.
Okay, onto other things. yesterday in my neighborhood, i saw in the discount store, an item identified as a "Latino Blanket". The packaging for the blanket said clearly, and in block letters "LATINO BLANKET". While i feel i can with some measure of accuracy identify a Latino poet when i see one, or even a Latino appointee for Attorney General under Bush (who'd probably call himself Hispanic anyway - sorry, little aside there), or even a Latino... mailman, i don't think i'd be able to identify a Latino Blanket, especially when the packaging also includes a picture of a panda. I know of no Latino countries (or Hispanic ones for that matter) to which the panda is indigenous, though some clue might be had as to this curious occurence from the tag that said "Made in China." Still, how does one decide that one will deem a blanket as Latino or Asian for that matter? What does a blanket have to do to earn the tag, Latino? I can hear the jokes right now. Rich, Oscar, Jessica, help me please! Mara, help me please. Only you can understand this level of surreal. Ray, help me please!
In other news, this is day 1 of my swing state tour. I'm in a dope-ass hotel room in Milwaukee getting down on some room service, and getting ready for my gig tonight. There'll be daily updates...