By Karla Hilliard
I am about to tell you how I became a teacher.
I became a teacher for either the most naive or idealistic reasons, but probably a combination of the two. It is because of poetry.
I love it. Love it with a sustaining, carry my favorite collections as holy, memorizing poems to give myself the shivers at will love.
This is a true story. When I was in Miss Smithson’s 2nd grade class at Hurricane Town Elementary, our reading textbook had a poem in it called “My Dog.” Tiny me was so taken by this little rhyming ditty, I memorized the whole thing. Want to hear it? It goes…
“My Dog” by Author Unknown (by the author of this blog post)
He didn’t bark at anything
A cat, a bird, a piece of string
A siren or a silly toad
A pickup truck along the road
A fence, a bone, a chewed up shoe
He barked because he wanted to
I grew up in a home with books. When I was a child, my mom read to me. She was wonderful that way. But I didn’t grow up with poetry books. Bible verses were about as close as I got or music. My dad is a music guy, and he did his part to model how to adequately freak out over beautiful, resonate lines and lyrics. When we’re together now and in a listening mood, we still sometimes compare our goose pimply arms at a turn of phrase.
In 7th grade, in another textbook, I encountered the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and I thought it was really something. And in the 12th grade, it was all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the very back of my very heavy literature book.
I had a great job that year at a Baskin Robbins tucked inside of a BP gas station, and during the cold winter months, the store was totally dead. I had the green booths all to myself with the occasional, satisfying bing of a register. But in pre-social media teenage existence, I had to figure out on my own how to get unbored. On a particularly empty and snowy evening at work, I took out the one book I had: the literature textbook. That night, I read words I understood strung together in an order I didn’t. I found them intensely beautiful.
And I wanted more.
I had no idea what to do with my life so I majored in English. One incredibly influential professor (and poet), Jim Harms at West Virginia University, introduced another universe of poetry and writing to me. In his workshop class, I had to write poems (cringe), I had to read a bunch of poetry and talk about craft and structure and meaning, and I had to attend a reading. A what? A reading! Lucky me. It was a poet named Terrance Hayes and he had a new book out called Hip Logic.
Poetry had me. And I had poetry. But I had no idea what to do with an English degree. So I chose teaching.
I wish I could tell you that from a young age I knew teaching was my destiny, or that really, I wanted to teach “for the kids.” I didn’t know of any destinies that needed manifesting, and I didn’t not like kids. I was a coach and camp counselor and a big sister to a much younger sibling. This is a secret, but “the kids” are not the reason I ended up becoming a teacher.
It was poetry.
And while naive, wonderfully so I think, I wanted to share poetry with people. In this part of the story, the people I’d be sharing it with was destined. In 2005, I walked into my own classroom for the first time and the first unit I planned on my own was modeled after my favorite classes. We read, we wrote, we workshopped. I had no idea if I was teaching standards, but I did what worked for me and what moved my students.
I have always worked hard to help students discover poetry, their own favorite poets, the poems that will make them shake their heads and leave them in awe.
Fast forward 15 years, and the most important discovery I’ve made is that contemporary poetry is a key that unlocks this door for students.
I have found a kindred spirit in the #TeachLivingPoets founder, friend, and colleague, Melissa Smith. Her infectious enthusiasm and passion for contemporary poetry propels me forward and empowers me to experiment, share, and grow just what it means to be a poetry teacher and the ways in which poetry moves students in authentic and exciting ways.
- We seek to get poetry into the hands of students.
- We seek to complicate the canon, to open the door wider of which poems are taught in the classroom.
- We seek to provide students with poetry that reflects their identities, backgrounds, and present circumstances.
- We seek to expose students to new ideas and to people who are different than them.
- We seek to uplift the voices of BIPOC poets, LBGTQ+ poets, and poets with disabilities.
- We seek to celebrate the arts in schools, especially poetry.
- We seek to empower students’ voices through reading and writing poetry.
One of the tenets of Teach Living Poets is putting poetry into the hands of our students and connecting them to real, living, available writers.
My school’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I co-coordinate (like most things, WVCTE for example) with my teaching partner and colleague, Jessica Salfia, is growing into a day long festival and celebration of art, poetry, and writing.
For this poetry celebration day, we held our school POL competition, with 15 students—9th through 12th graders—reciting and performing poetry. We heard poems by Robert Hayden, Jamaal May, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nikki Giovanni, William Shakespeare, and Hanif Abdurraqib (who we were extremely fortunate to host last year as our guest poet), among many others.
Our students had the opportunity to attend a reading. A what? A reading! They also engaged in a Q&A with our two guest poets, and got an education different in both kind and degree. They learned from two real writers about writing.
You can read more about this day here, where the winner and an extraordinary student I’m lucky to call my own, Rheá Ming says of her performance poem “For the Dogs Who Barked At Me on the Sidewalks in Connecticut” by Hanif Abdurraqib, “I think the content of the poem spoke to me as far as finding an identity.”
I could go on…
But the thing I’ll leave you with is not just my own devotion and love to poetry, but why it matters now that it’s taken me 15 years into a career that has changed and shaped my life, and I hope the lives of some of the students I’ve had the privilege of teaching.
Poetry can speak to us, for us, and about us. Poetry gives us solace—we turn to it in our most difficult and darkest times, but also in times of great love and joy. It asks and answers questions; it places demands on us. Poetry ain’t easy. Neither is living.
I want this for students—this beautiful and challenging grappling with language and ideas, and when they find themselves, their questions, their struggles, identities, and desires in a poem, we have done something together that transcends any standards or exam. We have done life work.
One young man Michael said just yesterday of José Olivarez, “I didn’t know this is what poetry could be.”
Thank you poetry. I love you.