I came into the classroom ready to teach my writers about “I Remember” poems. What the class ended up being for both myself and my writers was a lesson in accepting vulnerability as strength.
I first read them an excerpt of “Feet” by Ross Gay, for both that vulnerable aspect and the repetition of the word “feet.” The poem starts off with the line “Friends, mine are ugly feet.” The rest of the poem goes on to talk about the speaker’s dislike for their feet, and through that negative repetition and brutal honesty drills into how they feel about their insecurities. I thought it would work well together with the “I Remember” poem format since often times, we have memories that aren’t always so positive. I wanted to engage the students with tapping into those emotions in order to show them that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or even scared and poetry is an outlet to express those emotions.
First, I asked my kids about what they noticed in the poem, and of course they shouted out so excitedly “feet!” When I began to ask why Ross Gay would write about his feet, and how much he really didn’t like his feet, the kids fell quiet. To be honest, I was expecting that. Finally, some kids raised their hands and the answers I got was:
“To express himself”
“To be emotional”
“To show he isn’t embarrassed by his feet”
My kids had shown already that they are so smart and talented but this was a huge step in interpreting the poem. We went through a few lines, talked about how and why we thought Ross Gay wrote the poem the way that he did. Then, I asked them to close their eyes while I asked a series of questions for them to think about.
“Have you ever built something with your own two hands?”
“What did you do on your last birthday?”
“Have you ever been on vacation? If so, where? How was it?”
“What do you like to eat when you’re sick?”
“What do you do when you get excited?”
“Where is somewhere you like to go when you’re feeling sad?”
When they opened their eyes, I wrote on the board “I REMEMBER.” I told them to keep their answers to themselves, but to have some sort of memory in their head. Together, we listed out some of the things that we’ve been talking about through the course and made a list.
Then, we discussed what all of those things meant. Like the smell of a memory, and how that smell makes them feel. That emotion of the memory, and something that we could compare that emotion to.
In our individual work, I went around the room helping my writers think of some memories. Some of the kids were pretty set in not engaging in this exercise, perhaps since it seemed like too much work to think back on the past, so I decided to share a few memories of mine with them.
I talked about the first time I ever went on this one roller coaster back home, that was made of wood and bolts. It was truly terrifying, because I thought the ride was going to collapse. But once I got to the top of the first major hill, and took that drop, I felt my stomach go into my chest and I felt like an empty balloon in a good way.
I talked about an embarrassing moment when I was in kindergarten, and I was holding hands with the wrong mom.
I talked about the day I found out my uncle passed away, and how I was in the pool and the clouds were so gray that it was like they felt how sad I was.
I talked about a happy memory, of the morning I found out I got my first poem published. How the sun shined through my blinds, my cat woke me up so early and I felt groggy, and cranky. But when I went back to bed and checked my emails, I found one from an online journal that said they liked what I wrote and they wanted to publish my writing. My writers responded to this so well.
During our sharing time, I had so many writers willing to share their truths and it was great. I had a few who were very nervous, but with the help of the entire class, Mrs. Hernandez, and myself I was able to encourage two shy students to read and it was so fantastic. One student wrote about how her birthday smelled like tamales. Another student wrote about when she saw her Tata in a casket, and that he would be sleeping forever. These kids opened up and shared such valuable and vulnerable writing, it made me feel so proud.
Julia Kinu is a poet and an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. She recently took a class offered through the Poetry Center called Writing Your Community. As part of the requirements for the class she taught an 8-week long creative writing residency at a local Tucson Public School.