New York Times
Monday, June 29, 1998
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Who Could Be Teachers
by Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky is the Poet Laureate of the United States.
In April, I
went to a poetry slam with the First Lady. That is, the two previous
Poet Laureates, Rita Dove and Robert Hass, and I accompanied Hillary
Rodham Clinton to an event at the J. Hayden Johnson Junior High
School in southeast Washington.
The most impressive
thing about this occasion was the performance of the seventh- and
ninth-grade student poets. As one who has attended perhaps more
poetry readings than any human being should have to, I can testify
that the writing and delivery were extremely good. These students
wrote not in Standard English and not in Black English, but each
in an inventive, individual and pungent version of English, grammatically
right and eloquent. The range of subjects was great: I remember
a comic poem of extravagant boasting, a poem pitying a homeless
derelict, a poem of metaphysical reach about space exploration,
a love poem, a poem kidding self-pity, an homage to Duke Ellington.
The oral delivery,
especially considering that the First Lady and the three Laureates
were there, not to mention reporters, photographers and television
cameras, was relaxed and forceful. The children seemed protected
from nerves or intimidation by two factors: they were young, not
yet as embarrassment-prone as older adolescents, and they knew that
they had applied themselves to do something well.
Almost as impressive
as the student poets was how the First Lady handled the occasion.
She swiftly made contact with the teachers, with the principal and
with Kenny Carroll, director of D.C. Writerscorps, the program that
arranged the poetry slam. (Writerscorps, a project of the Humanities
Council of Washington, D.C., has received support from Americorps,
the national service program advocated by President Clinton.) Mrs.
Clinton spoke with the student poets, and despite the artificiality
of the situation, there was actual conversation between some bright
children and an adult who, they could sense, genuinely respected
what they had done and cared for them.
presence there was contrived, the children and their ability were
quite real, and the poetry event was not staged for us; it had been
scheduled long before the White House called. Very clearly, the
students had been taught with respect and skill by their classroom
teachers and by the special poetry instructors, Nancy Schwalb and
D. J. Renegade. This occasion defied stereotypes about city schools,
the kind we call, in code, "inner-city schools."
What was going
on in that classroom, and how might it be bottled for export? I
don't have all the answers, but it did occur to me that the 15 or
20 students who read that day, and the others who held up Olympics-style
scoring cards, as judges, had been taught by a couple of poets.
In my professional
world, it is commonplace to complain about the "proliferation"
of graduate writing programs and to deride the large numbers of
poets and fiction writers who come from those programs with "useless"
degrees and hopeless expectations of literary glory.
I have for a
while suspected that this derision has a class bias: poetry, which
used to be practiced mainly by a leisured elite, has become another
part of the American range of middle-class opportunities. I know
more bad things about the creative writing industry than most people,
but I also know that it brings the art I love to many Americans
who crave it.
What if those
allegedly superfluous graduates of Master of Fine Arts programs
were able to teach children like those in Johnson Junior High? Right
now, because of the professional education lobby, the writing graduates
cannot easily get work in a public school system. The writing program
at Boston University, where I teach, accepts 12 students in poetry
each year and 12 in fiction, from a pool of 300 applicants. When
they graduate, a number of them go to teach at elite private schools,
but relatively few can teach in the public school system without
more schooling, in the form of education courses.
Can it be that
bureaucracy is depriving public school students of the chance to
learn from these gifted writers, who go on to work at St. Paul's
or Exeter? American schools in the past have benefited from various
social phenomena -- for instance, the limited opportunities once
offered to talented women and the sense of mission created by religious
feelings and vocations. Both of these historical circumstances provided
a pool of talented teachers.
The alert, competent
students I met in the city of Washington that day left me with no
doubt that education in art is practical -- in fact, a vital necessity.
The eagerness and skill of those youngsters also made me wonder
if we need more graduates of creative writing programs -- of programs
in all the arts -- and more imaginative ways to use their ardor
and their talent.
SECTION: Section A; Page 17; Column 2; Editorial Desk
LENGTH: 804 words
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