Challenging Stereotypes

I entered Seattle University for my Masters in Teaching in the fall of 1993. Writing that, I feel old. But I took part in something today that took me all the way back to “Fire Hose Week” in August of 1993. The week is an intense week of 8-hour days followed by hours of reading and reflection at night. I was in a program with 49 others and we’d get pretty close by the end of our year together. But the first day, I walked into the room to start meeting people and the first person I met said, “Ah, you must be a P.E. teacher and a football coach.” I guess being big and bald-headed will create an impression. “Nope. I’m going to be a chemistry teacher.” Needless to say, the person I was talking to was taken aback by my answer. I guess I challenged his stereotype of what a chemistry teacher looked like.

Today was another day where I got to challenge stereotypes.

I got invited as a guest poet to visit a grade 10 English class. One of the English teachers knew that I’d written a bit and had seen one of my poems that she thought would fit the poetry unit quite well. And she wanted to force her students to think about poetry from a new perspective. And to actually talk to a poet about his writing.

Last Friday the students were assigned two of my poems to read – anonymously. They didn’t know it was me. Granted, one of the poems made it relatively obvious, but I didn’t say anything. I showed up today and they asked, “Are you are sub today?” (The teacher had to be out of town for a conference, and with scheduling conflicts this was the best day for my visit.) “Nope.” I just smiled. “Wait. You’re the poet?!?”

“Yep. I’m the poet.”

I’d say it blew their minds a bit. I like that.

I talked about my connection to poetry, then read the first poem I wrote – about a student that was shot and killed my first year as a teacher in Los Angeles. It’s still tough for me to read, 18 years later. But I read it and shared my raw emotions. Then we discussed the poem a bit.

I followed this with my favorite poem, about a hike I did with my dad when I was younger. This poem is below. I wanted to share it.  We talked some more poetry, word choices, connections, and meaning. I was humbled by the response the students had, and their kind words on their way out the door. But before they left, I offered them a challenge. I held up my own personal poetry anthology, containing my own work along with some other poets (Edward Abbey, Amari Baraka, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, William Stafford, Derek Sheffield) and some work from former students. I said to them, “My challenge to you is to write a poem that I’ll want to include in my book.”

The first immediate response from a student, “Challenge accepted.”

I can’t wait to see what they write!

Naches Peak

(This poem is dedicated to the memory of my dad, who passed away May 21, 1996.)

As I walk towards the sky, the birds sing as if on stage.

I am their audience, but applause doesn’t seem appropriate.

Further along I go, wandering through the trees.  Will I reach my destination, or is this simply a journey, simply?

On the side of the trail, a trickle of water falls from the rocks.  In my mind, you are still standing next to me as we drink this pure water through our tent pole, erasing our thirst, yet we are still thirsty for more.  More time together, more time in the mountains, breathing pure air and drinking clean, cool water.

My hike continues past the pond filled with melt-water.  When we were here we stayed on the trail.  “Tread lightly,” is what you always taught me.

I continue, hiking through the trees as the memories become more vivid.  I walk back through time as you tell me to watch the trail, not looking up until you tell me.  I still remember what your boots looked like, as your feet pointed in opposite directions.  One step at a time, I watched you walk.  We reached the meadow, and you said I could look up.  You smiled with me as I stared in amazement at The Mountain that was just across the meadow.  I felt like I could touch Mt. Rainier.  We sat and ate our lunch here.  I can still taste the crisp apple, hear the sound of my bite.  As the apple nourished my body, the mountain nourished my soul.  I can taste the summer sausage and cheese we ate, I eat.  More nourishment.  More beauty.  As I sit here I think of how close I felt to you that day, even though we didn’t say a word during lunch.  We spoke without using words.  Our love of the mountains and of each other was all we needed.

After lunch, we kept hiking, I keep hiking.  When I finish, I arrive at where we started.  My path, our path, was a circle, no beginning, no end.  This is a journey, simply.

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