Inspired to Teach: A morning writing adventure

Ash FriendUniversity of Arizona's Poetry Center rises up from the ground in clean, straight lines and sharp angles, all steel and glass. It is legendary within the English Department for being home to the extensive poetry library and for the authors who come to do readings. I've been at the U of A for three years and have had the Poetry Center extolled to me in numerous classes, but never knew where it was.

It's a Saturday morning in October and I'm on my way to assist with a session of Poetry Joeys. I'm a little nervous as I walk up--for a writer, I am considered annoyingly gregarious, but in truth I am an introvert with somewhat severe social anxiety. There have been many Christmas parties and other social functions which I have bailed out on at the last minute due to impending panic. This game of 'social activity roulette' adds a sense of uncertainty to every occasion.

However, children make me less nervous than adults, and I want to eventually be a Teaching Artist, so this will entail having to actually work with the public. The class I am taking at U of A, At the Intersection of Teaching and Writing, requires a certain amount of volunteer outreach hours and so this session of helping at Poetry Joeys fulfills one session. As I walk up to the building, my anticipation of the morning begins to outweigh my anxieties. After all, despite the fact that poetry is an anarchistic form of expression, capable of causing revolutions, most poets are fairly nonthreatening to interact with. Most.

Inside, I'm greeted by the intern, Tim, who is very tall and has a beard. I wonder if he is a poet and if so, what sort of poetry he writes. I also see Jillian, from my class. We talk about the outreach we're doing at local elementary schools while we get a folding card table set up in front of the building and arrange name tags, markers, and release forms for the students' work. Then we go upstairs to see where we will be making copies of the students' work and see the offerings for snacks today--letter shaped alphabet cookies are a key feature--and meet the volunteer who'll be assisting with them. Jillian and I head back downstairs to wait for the kids.

We only have two kids arrive by the scheduled time to begin, but we wait another twenty minutes and within the last ten minutes about fifteen kids show up. All arrive with parents, many on bikes. The kids are all cute--a little girl in a bright sari, talking excitedly to her dad as they walk up, a red haired girl of about nine with an American Girl doll who tells Jillian and me all about her doll and how she loves poetry as she carefully fills out her name tag in script, two brothers and their sister, who all arrive on bikes, the girl wearing a black equestrienne's helmet and tall black boots.

Their parents are all friendly and seem patient and all seem at ease with the Poetry Center. Most are regulars. Jillian and I get everybody a name tag and then we go inside to our respective groups. Jillian is working with the little kids, aged four to six, and I am working upstairs with the big kids aged seven to ten. The room we are in is bright, due to having floor-to-ceiling glass walls on two sides. There is a black and white photo of Salvador Dali with an ocelot by the door, reminding people to turn out the lights when the room isn't in use.

Upstairs, the day's lesson is on myths. There are about nine kids sitting around a long table in the center of the room, and they take turns going around the table, reading the myth aloud. Then the teacher, who is a former student in the class I'm in, writes key elements of a story on the whiteboard as she brainstorms with the students. Some of their ideas are surprising--many of them don't feel that the villain in a story should be defeated violently, they think the hero should talk to the villain and convince them to stop being bad. Very few of the kids think the villain should be killed or otherwise punished, although some do think the villain should go to jail. I think back to the Mighty Mouse and Popeye cartoons I loved as a small child with their symphonic violence and try to imagine Popeye and Bluto sitting down and talking out their differences.

There are two boys in the group, and seven girls. There are also three mothers who stayed with their children, which is a little surprising. I remember when I was a small child and my mother used to drop me off at Saturday lessons at the art center or library. That was her time to go do meetings or errands or simply to enjoy a child-free hour. I am very glad the parents are here, though, and it doesn't seem as though they're staying out of a sense of anxiousness that we might kidnap their children, but rather that they want to stay in the calm and welcoming atmosphere.

The kids start to work on their myths after the brainstorming session. First, they work at filling out answers to the questions on the board. Several kids ask if they can illustrate their stories. I start thinking about a possible workshop on stories told through comics, for kids. I also move around, asking kids what they're writing about. A dark haired boy of about eight grins as he tells me the involved, James Bondesque plot of his story about mind control, credit union robbery, and narcolepsy. He informs me that he wants to be a famous writer when he grows up, but he intends to do it before he gets to be too old, 'You know, like twenty five.'

From downstairs, periodically, there is the sound of music, clapping and singing. The kids upstairs write away, occasionally talking quietly as they do. They ask to have extra time to write more. The atmosphere in the room is quiet, but charged with the electric energy of creation. At last, it is time to go and copy off the kids' work. I collect copies of their writing, along with the other volunteer from the big kids' room, and go to figure out the intricacies of the copier. David comes in and helps. There is a moment of anxiety, when kids are anxiously awaiting the return of their stories. They are uncertain if their stories will ever be returned.

At last, we manage to get them all copied and come back. I accidentally give kids two copies of their stories instead of retaining one for the Poetry Center, and have to track them down outside and retrieve them. Everybody gives up their extra copy without a fight. Most of the kids also put a copy of their story into the Magic Box--a steam trunk decorated with bright fake gems and lettering, that will be picked up in Spring by a local small theatre company. The company will read through all the entries and will select short stories and poems to make short plays from, and will enact them for school groups and the public. I think about a project involving taking children's short stories and animating them, using the children's narration as a soundtrack.

Everybody gets a snack. Everybody has their copy of their myth. The bright, September sunshine falls across the concrete as kids run around in the Poetry Center breezeway and garden, eating the alphabet and clutching their myths. I watch them, and know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Ash Friend is a University of Arizona student in Laynie Browne's year-long course, At the Intersection of Teaching and Writing.

Created on: 
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents