A few weeks ago, I was thumbing through students’ folders, looking for work to type for our upcoming anthologies, when I stumbled across these two lines:
“This is not an toy/ It is Ms. Hays”
At first, I howled with laughter, not at this fourth-grader’s loose grasp on grammar and how to spell my name, but at the creativity, the audacity, and ultimately the TRUTH of this young girl’s poem.
The thing is this: the assignment was to draw a random object from The Mystery Bag, turn it into something else — anything else — and then imbue that Something Else with magical powers. Or extraordinary value. Or a raspy voice, or a bad attitude; you get the idea. It was the third or fourth class, and I intentionally gave a more open-ended prompt, only pushing the students to use their five senses, so I could see how each student wrote and thought without much outside interference.
Well, whatever Mystery Object this child picked from the bag, she decided that she would transform it into ME. And I don’t play, apparently. I may “smell like honey” (sniffed some at breakfast; not sure that’s a compliment) and “probably taste like flowers,” but “don’t touch her hair/ or she gets mad.” In fact, contact in general seems to anger me.
Which then made me sad and worried. The picture that emerges from this poem is pretty, even perfumed, yet fragile. The person in this poem is afraid of drawing closer to others.
Is that person me? Perhaps. While I hope I don’t react with actual “anger” when my elementary students want to hug me or touch my hair — foreign territory for a former middle-school teacher — I know I am somewhat uncomfortable with it. What kinds of hugs are we allowed to give again? I wonder, scanning my mind for the latest legislation. How do you embrace a kid whose head hits you at boob-level?
But in a larger sense, I know there’s more. As a sexual assault and domestic violence survivor — and this month is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month — I have trouble letting people get close to me. It’s been several years and I have made humongous strides, but those crumbling barriers are still there.
So maybe I am the person in this poem. Kids see us the way we are, for better or worse.
But maybe, like this student did with her Mystery Object, I have the chance to redefine myself, to transform myself into Something Else. I’ve already come so far; why not keep going?
Maybe you have the same story. Maybe you have started making changes in your life, but it seems like they’re not enough. Maybe you WANT to make changes, but don’t know where to start.
Or maybe you just want to write a poem and join us in National Poetry Writing Month‘s 30-Day challenge. In any case, here’s an idea:
Look in the mirror. Find one thing — physical or otherwise — that you really like about yourself, or want to change or always got teased or praised about. MAKE IT INTO SOMETHING ELSE. Capital Something, capital Else: something more, for better or worse. Something magical or unexpected or contradictory. Start your poem with “This is not a…” and/or do whatever you want. Make your big feet into personal surfboards that float you through life’s hard times. Make the walls of toughness around you into prison walls made of chocolate; melt them down with a blow drier and make your escape.
The point is to free yourself enough to imagine yourself differently, and then to write with that same freedom. I tried my hand at this exercise a while ago, so it won’t count for my NaPoWriMo efforts, but I encourage you to give it a go. The act of redefining yourself, even at a micro level, is incredibly uplifting and powerful (see Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips” for proof).
So try it out! Feel free to share your poem in the comments or link back to your blog or Twitter. Let’s all get writing, and re-imagining!