First, I am a poet. After that, I am a teacher.
When I write, I write of people living on the edges of the mainstream. I write about disability. I write about poverty and disenfranchisement. I write about an invisible world.
As a teacher, I work with disabled young people. I work with young people who see the world through a fractured lens. All of my students have survived trauma. They’ve survived abandonment. Their world is often frightening. Their lives are often outside their control.
Any young person struggles to find themselves. It’s a part of growing up. Young people often lack the ability to communicate their needs. The students with whom I work, though, often have a deeper fight. Many of them simply lack the words to describe their needs. Often, they can’t even identify their emotions. Sometimes, this disability manifests as violence.
As a teacher and a poet, I work with them to find ways to connect words to feelings. Knowing how to label feelings and then how to communicate those feelings in a safe and appropriate way is difficult. Poetry, because of its descriptive nature, gives these folks the ability to identify within themselves and state those feelings to the world.
Reading poetry gives my students practice in observing how others feel. It broadens their world. Many of these kids lack empathy. All they seem to know is that they are not getting what they want. In their lives, they have learned that screaming and kicking and punching gets their needs met. It gets them attention.
Poetry, writing it and reading it, reciting it, while difficult, gives them the tools and the confidence to stand up for themselves without imposing themselves on the world. Poetry doesn’t solve the problems. These students will always carry the scars of their lives, but my hope, my biggest hope, is that when the students leave my class and later, when they go into the world, that they’ll have a better understanding of themselves. Most of them will never look at poetry again. Almost none of them will develop my love words and images and meter. We live in a world in which people see poems and poets as outsiders. People assume there’s something wrong with those of us who outline our emotions on paper.
By standing up every day in class, I teach my students that their disabilities, while hard to live with, do not make them less human. My goal is to show them that they paint their world any color they choose. My goal is to give them the skills to recognize their feelings as well as others and the ability to communicate in a way that doesn’t involve fists or profanity.