Education Afield: Feeling Rich with Unrestricted Interested


Lonnie, an eighteen-year-old transgender writer with a range of social and learning challenges, begins most of our sessions by insisting that he will not be writing today. I’ve learned to hang back and wait for Lonnie to initiate our writing himself, a transition that’s often heralded by an uncanny change in Lonnie’s voice. He starts out gruff and deep, intimidating even, and then, if I can get him to grow curious, a new voice emerges, soft and tenor. Today I was talking about the strange ovoid water tower visible from the school’s parking lot, perched atop seven spindly legs like some sort of giant squid or alien vessel. It reads RICHFIELD in thick white letters cut out from a blue background. I was telling Lonnie’s aide Tommy how it made me think about richness. Since Tommy used to play basketball overseas I used a hoops metaphor: “I don’t have very much money, but when I shoot a three-pointer and it quietly swishes through the net…I feel rich.”

This got Lonnie’s attention. Lonnie, as he wrote in the bio of his first chapbook of poems, “grew up poor.” He had been living in different group homes for several years now and thought often about the money he’d like to have or would one day earn. “What are y’all talking about?” he asked, sidling up to my open laptop and reading the title of the poem I was hoping we’d write. “Feeling Rich, huh? What you mean by feeling rich?” I gave him another example. “Like I said to Tommy, I don’t have very much money, but when I put on a new pair of yellow sunglasses, even if they only cost me five dollars, I feel rich. What makes you feel rich, Lonnie?”

And off we went. I could tell from our initial momentum that this would be a big one. As such, I suggested we write an abecedarian poem, working our way through each letter of the alphabet, for a total of 26 lines. Lonnie was game. Occasionally, I’d pause to ask him a question, trying to draw out greater specificity. When Lonnie said eating an orange made him feel rich, I asked where he would eat it: “In the jungle.” When Lonnie said working with sick animals makes him feel rich, I asked him what kind of animals: “Cheetahs.” In the last line, when he said zebras make him feel rich, I asked him what he would do with a zebra: “Ride it.” I asked him where: “Through the woods.” I asked him when: “In the middle of the night.” My favorite line in the entire poem is: “Spending a nickel makes me feel rich.” Here it is, in all its alphabetical glory:

Feeling Rich

A warm Alabama vacation makes me feel rich

Batman makes me feel rich

Chocolate chip pancakes with bacon and eggs and sausage and hash browns and orange juice make me feel rich

Buying some Nike shorts and a shirt from Dick’s Sporting Goods makes me feel rich

Adorable baby elephants make me feel rich

Watching Teddy Bridgewater get tackled by the Green Bay Packers makes me feel rich

Buying NBA Live 2018 at Gamestop makes me feel rich

Getting a hug from Aaron Rodgers makes me feel rich

Sleeping in an igloo makes me feel rich

Strawberry jelly and butter on my biscuits makes me feel rich

Being King of the World makes me feel rich

A lion’s roar makes me feel rich

Getting hyper drinking Mountain Dew makes me feel rich

Spending a nickel makes me feel rich

Eating an orange in the jungle makes me feel rich

Plums make me feel rich

Not quitting makes me feel rich

Seeing a big rat makes me feel rich

Sleeping all day makes me feel rich

When I feel like a tiny tiger I feel rich

Using an umbrella in the rain makes me feel rich

Working with sick cheetahs makes me feel rich

Riding an extra big roller coaster makes me feel rich

Why you leave me when I’m feeling rich?

Riding a Zebra in the woods in the middle of the night makes me feel rich     

Lonnie is a student at the South Education Center in Richfield, Minnesota, and a select member of the school’s yearlong mentorship initiative with Unrestricted Interest. You can learn more about Unrestricted Interest, an organization dedicated to transforming the lives of unconventional learners through poetry, by visiting our website. And you can purchase Lonnie Shaw’s first chapbook, Rainbow Man Enters the Ring, and view the other Unrestricted Editions chapbooks by visiting our online store.

Chris Martin is the author of The Falling Down Dance (Coffee House, 2015), winner of a Midwest Independent Booksellers Choice Award. He is the recent recipient of NEA and MN State Arts Board grants for poetry. In 2015 he co-founded Unrestricted Interest, an organization dedicated to transforming the lives of those with autism through poetry, and Unrestricted Editions, a press dedicated to transforming poetry through the voices of those with autism. He also teaches at Hamline University and Carleton College.

Martin recently led a five-day UA Poetry Center professional development session on facilitating poetry workshops for students on the autism spectrum. Here's a photo from the last day of class: