One of my favorite activities at the end of the school year is our poetry jam. We invite families to come in to the classroom, listen to poetry that students have written, and then create poetry together at a variety of centers. We inevitably have a great turnout, and the room is a happy hum of poetry celebration.
This year, the grandfather of one of my students stood by the doorway, a bulky, silent presence. I hadn’t met him before, but his granddaughter had mentioned he’d be coming. He’d slipped into the room right before the students read their poetry, and now remained standing (poised for quick exit?), while she was busy buzzing around the room without him, working with other students and parents. He seemed content where he was, watching the activity, but I suspected that he, like so many adults, was probably uncomfortable with poems and poetry writing. He struck me as the quintessential Mainer–hard-working, somewhat taciturn, with deep ties to the land and community about him. Quiet and strong.
After glancing about the room to ensure that everyone else was happily occupied, I walked over to introduce myself to him.
We exchanged names and a few pleasantries, and then I asked, “Would you like to write a poem?”
“No,” he replied slowly. Almost thoughtfully.
“Well, have you ever written poetry before?” I asked, in full ambassador mode.
“Yes,” he said. “After I came back from the war.”
Then his voice shifted to a sort of dreamy cadence….”I wrote about lying on the grass under a big oak tree…looking up through the green leaves and branches above me… I wrote about wondering how many birds have nested in this tree…How many animals have made their home in its branches? …And how many children have played in those same branches? …And I hoped my own children and eventually my grandchildren would climb in this tree. …And then, I wondered, after I died, … how long would this tree live… and still provide a home and comfort.”
“Oh,” I said, after a brief moment in which I recalibrated my initial impressions, “that was lovely.”
He told me then about some of his experiences during his service: He was shot in the head, shoulder, thigh and ankle. To this day, it’s still uncomfortable for him to sit, especially in hard chairs intended for much smaller individuals, which is why he was standing.
Then, at one point, his voice changed again, slowed and deepened, and he said,
“I heard the thunder,
then knew it was gunfire.
I heard the screams,
then night fell.
When morning came,
why I had survived.”
Clearly, these words were deeply etched within him. Their power echoed within me. After a moment, I blinked and cleared my throat.
“You’re a wonderful poet, ” I finally said. “Have you shared your poems with your granddaughter or with anyone else in your family?”
“No,” he said. Then he elaborated, in true Maine fashion, “I’ve been working.”
We talked for quite some time, about his school experiences (not positive), his work (long and hard), his family (much beloved). Later in the conversation, he told me that he had shared some of his writing with a veteran’s organization.
Eventually, I realized I’d totally abandoned my classroom responsibilities. I thanked him for coming and for sharing his words with me, and told him how much I’d enjoyed our conversation. Reluctantly, I wandered away to circulate amongst the parents and children, my mind still lingering on our conversation. On the inaccuracies of first impressions. On war. On poetry.
Two days later, on the last day of school, his granddaughter handed me an envelope. In it her grandfather had enclosed some of his writing. It was about time and change and family. It was beautiful and thoughtful. Once again, I was deeply moved by this unexpected poet and his unexpected gift.