She was not the first to come to me after class and tell me, among other things, that she wrote poetry. In almost forty years of teaching, let me count the times. . .
Most often, the lines they show me stretch almost painfully over various emotional crises. Somewhere along the line, high school and college students come to assume that poetry is what they write by candlelight in their bedrooms after an awful day--or with Christian kids, after a particularly good one. To most students, poetry is confessional, and I'm at once honored and belabored with their work--honored because they trust me with their emotions, belabored because one can't say much for good or ill when the lines are wrenched out of the blood, sweat, and tears that form the essence of the poems they write. You learn to nod and smile. Besides, reading student papers is something I do for a living. I don't need more.
So, yes, I was honored she would deign to show me, but, honestly, I didn't think much of it until a few of those poems came--as mysterious as e-mail, not ten minutes after she asked if I'd like to see them. There they were, suddenly, in my in-box. To be truthful, this wasn't just any student, but someone who'd shown more care for my world--my poets, my Emerson, my Dickinson--than anyone else (at least publically) in class. Students are not dying to get into Early American Literature these days. I was anxious to read.
Here is one of the poems.
Peacefully we frolicked on the banks of her veins
Celebrating our inception into the masculine community.
Her blood washing away the last remnants of our adolescence,
Ushering us into a life beyond.
Suddenly, the serpent strikes. His blue eyes blonde hair
Forcing the fruit on us, oblivious to the God in here
Unlike the woman; We were bound
And forced out of her bosom
Our life flowing through her veins,
Her life stolen from her veins.
I found it interesting, but somewhat inaccessible. There's some gender stuff, and a little Adam and Eve in the Garden; but mostly I found the poem puzzling, and I returned it with questions like this: "The serpent is almost angel-like with his blonde hair, blue eyes; but the action—I’m not sure what it is—isn’t angelic. Between the serpent and the fruit, I can’t help think of something Edenic here, but I’m not picking up your cues—if indeed you’re giving me any. "
The next morning, her response was in my inbox: "Her here is Africa. The young men are celebrating after a going through a ritual to solidify their manhood. Her veins are her rivers and the blood in the water flowing through the rivers. Blood perpetuates life just as the rivers do for people in Africa."
The student is Black.
When I read that explanation, immediately some hidden chip in my mind kicked up a Langston Hughes' poem: "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." I could have kicked myself for not "picking up her cues." She's working in an established tradition here, and I missed it completely--a Ph.D. in English, who's not only taught for forty years but even written papers on Langston Hughes.
This young lady, a proud young Black woman, had appropriated a whole poetic tradition in African-American lit; she was writing out of her own Black soul. And I'd missed--ye olde white prof had never even guessed. I was embarrassed at my incredibly dim perceptions.
"I hope this clarifies things," she wrote at the end, withholding, graciously, every right to scold her professor.
I'd judged her, as a student, as someone who wouldn't know Langston Hughes, who couldn't; how could she?--she was a child, a kid, a rookie. Now I could have told her that she was heir to a great tradition I could never touch; I could have told who to read. What stopped me in my tracks with an early morning e-mail was my bewildering blindness.
What blew me away was the fact that my imagination couldn't put together the pieces to "get" the poem. What left me reeling was the real story here: that this student was a whole lot bigger and wiser, a whole lot more thoughtful than I'd ever guessed.
Sometimes in life--I know this too--lessons come the hard way, as this one did, revealing my own prejudice, not so much against her as a Black woman, but against her as a student. I saw her as a kid in a desk, not a human being; and that realization just about put me on my knees.
But it's a good thing to be humbled, especially when you start to think there's not so much more to learn when you're just about sixty years old. It's a joy to learn, even if there's some embarrassment and not a little pain.
Maybe the greatest classroom moment this entire semester--four classes I taught, almost seventy writing students--happened early in the morning when the prof got his perceptions retooled, not only about a student, but about himself. I've built fences around the minds and imaginations of my students. The teacher may well have got the F here, but he also learned the lesson. My kids are not just what I think they are.
Maybe teaching's finest moments come when profs sit in desks.
For the lesson she taught me, yesterday, I'm heartily thankful. I really am. I'm honored with her trust and her work, and I'm blessedly chastised for my not being able to imagine what my own students can do.
It's truly a privilege to learn.