“A broken home, a broken heart, isolated and afraid. Open up this is a raid. I want to get it through to you. You’re not alone.”
– Mavis Staples “You’re Not Alone” (written by Jeff Tweedy)
I am a collector of things, broken and winged, but I love them anyway.
When I was a child I used to bring home dead birds. I never killed them, but I always wanted to help them – somehow figure out how to bring them back to life. There are two instances that stick out in my mind; the first was when I picked up a dead baby bluebird from the sidewalk outside my elementary school, placed it in my backpack to give to my 2nd grade girlfriend as a gift, and forgot about it until I heard my mother scream. The second time was when a bird smashed into the window at my childhood home, and I quickly grabbed it up in a box, and tried to nurse it back to health.
I don’t understand how dead birds find my hand, but don’t do a damn thing that I say.
As I got older, and entered the dating world, or the marriage world, my parents and friends started calling my girlfriends “dead birds.” It wasn’t a far-fetched metaphor, as I mainly dated girls, or married my first wife, because I wanted to help them. I wanted to make them better people, despite my own sacrifices. It was always funny to me because I never really saw myself as the most compassionate person, but I suppose that those around me, the ones who truly knew me, did. While it was not always in my best interest to help others, it made me feel good. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work. In fact, it rarely worked, and typically ended poorly. I tried too hard to force my hand, change them in ways they refused, and it always backfired. It was not my job to change someone. I think I understood that, and I definitely do now, but I wasn’t going to stop trying.
As we grow older, we’re destined to change. At least I wanted it that way.
My junior English students are currently competing in a classroom poetry slam. They are less than a week from their first rounds, and things are heating up pretty quickly. Teams are talking trash, writing poems, and actually working together to help one another figure out the best phrasings, cadences, pause-stops, and rhyme schemes. It’s pretty powerful to watch. A lot of these kids have never written a poem before – some have never even completed a paper. But for some reason, this connected with them, and it leaves me thinking that I should have done this in September rather than wait until June. I’ve always tried my best to create a family environment in my classroom – an Open Classroom tool that I picked up from education guru, Herbert Kohl.
In the midst of the frantic scrawling of poetry, I noticed one girl shaking, and trying her best to avoid her group. Her poem laid on the ground in front of her, and her team mates were trying to cheer her on, and let her know that they were there for her, to help her in any way she needed. It was a great scene to watch, and I tried my best to stay in the background, and allow them to motivate the timid little bird. Eventually, she read it to her only true friend in the group, and while I could tell the friend was moved by it, the rest of the group felt shunned, so I stepped in and asked her to read it to the rest of them. They all sat in front of her, and she shook, and stammered, and cried, but eventually read through her entire piece about a very scary moment in her life – one so recent, she was still left with scars.
It was a beautiful piece, and one that deserved to be heard. She is a fairly quiet student, but incredibly well-spoken when she feels the need. I’ve always appreciated her work in class, and while she’s had a rough go of things at home, she treats school as the six-hour vacation that it should be. I’m proud that she got up in front of her group, and I think that next week, she will be able to perform her piece in front of the class – with an open heart, and enough emotion to probably win her round.
I’m getting nervous of movable things, like your mouth and the words you bring me.
As a teacher, it’s difficult sometimes to walk the line between instructor and counselor. I’ve always found this especially hard as an English teacher, and even more difficult as a Creative Writing teacher. I’ve always been someone with whom students feel comfortable talking, and that has led to many conversations, or stories, or poems, or papers, about life defining moments – the good, as well as the bad.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to separate myself from the conversations that I know work best in the counselors office. I’ve learned that while it’s my job to listen to students, and work with my students to get the best out of them, there are some situations that I don’t need to know about, and frankly, don’t want to know about.
Any teacher worth their salt can tell you about all of the harrowing things their students have confided in them. The rapes, the abuse, the drug problems, the imprisonment, and everything else you can, or can’t, possibly imagine. I’ve had students arrested in my classroom, or beaten by parents in a conference, and it’s never easy to watch, hear, or think about what might go on behind the closed doors of wherever they might reside.
Times they change, but we don’t know the answers, so we fake it anyway.
It’s easy to get lost in the world of dead birds, and forget that there are a lot of vibrant lives out there who don’t need help, and who don’t need to change – more than the typical maturation process. As I was trying to figure this all out, I faked my way through a lot of situations, and wasted a lot of my time, my life, my emotions on trying to make everything else better.
I’m a collector of things, broken and winged. But in the end, I can turn them away.
Well, maybe I can’t turn them away, but in the end, it’s easier to just listen, and respond only when I actually know what to say. It makes life – for everyone – a lot easier.