Feature Blog Post by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon
The Day of the Dead, the Cubs win the World Series, 87 degrees in November in St. Louis, and a United States presidential election is bellying-up (either to the bar or like an overfed fish).
The past week has not been usual. But through the past summer and fall, we have continued our weekly 90-minute sessions at Marygrove Children’s Home in Florissant, with the 16 to 21-year-old young men in transitional housing. One student is the son of Mexican immigrants and has a particular interest in the sciences. He plans to join the military when he graduates from high school, and possibly pursue the health sciences as a career. He consistently turns in his homework on time and receives good grades, without a lot of help from the tutors. When he entered the room he stated, “Who’s good at personal finances? I need help in my Personal Finances class. I’m getting an F! I need help from someone who knows what they’re doing.”
One of our tutors is a retired engineer, with a passion for fiction and experience with multiple practical skills. Originally from the Bronx, his mannerisms say, “Wanna fight?” But his consistent presence and real empathy for the students says, “Let me help.”
“I got this. I know a little somethin’ about personal finances,” he says to the student.
the bull, embroidered
with blood and given
an elegant death, trumpets, his name
stamped on him, heraldic brand
(when he rolled
on the sand, sword in his heart, the teeth
in his blue mouth were human)
he is really a man
-from The Animals in that Country, by Margaret Atwood
Another student has already graduated from high school and is waiting to start community college next semester, so he doesn’t have homework or college applications to fill out. He also has a part-time job so he doesn’t need help with job applications. But he attends our sessions to find sheet music for the cello, on the laptops that they are allowed to use. He’s an African American young man, who was born with a severe hearing impairment and has a cochlear implant. Yet, his greatest interest is playing the cello, which he taught himself. Although I often need to encourage him, he participates in the writing exercises each week.
This past week, I asked them to write a poem or paragraph starting with the lines, “In this country.” I gave them poems to read by W.S. Di Piero, Charles Wright, and Margaret Atwood. The poems were challenging to understand at first because they used some scientific jargon to describe everyday things. I asked the students and tutors to go over any unfamiliar words. Di Piero writes in Big City Speech:
Rise and shine
In puddle shallows
under every Meryl Cheryl Caleb Syd
somnambulists and sleepyheads
I then asked the students to write their “In this Country,” poem, using words or jargon from their own area of expertise, whether it’s chemistry, basketball, or music. The cellist broke from his sheet music to write a lengthy poem. He wrote quietly and hardly looked up from what he was writing until everyone else around him packed up their books and began to walk out the door for dinner. It was already ten minutes past the official end of our session when he said, “Wait, I want to read this out loud.”
After every session, I ask if anyone wants to read their work aloud. Some ask me to read their work and some are bold enough to read their own work. Every reading is met with applause and unlike a usual writing workshop, we save criticism for a time when one’s tutor can carefully go over revision, editing, and proofreading, in a one-on-one setting.
I called people back into the room from the hallway. The young man was so comfortable with the practice of reading his work that he called out to a Marygrove staff person, “Hey, I want you to listen to this!” And this level of comfort is in spite of his troubles with articulation due to his hearing impairment. At 5:45pm, I knew that everyone, including myself, was ready for dinner but I asked the class to stay. “Everyone, I know we’re in overtime but hang out and listen up, please.” His poem began:
In this country
history is ostinato
in every place
we are piano touched
by winds that turn us
to another direction…
Ostinato: a continually repeated phrase in music
Piano: the word for “softly” in Italian
He completed reading and we applauded wholeheartedly. “Truth,” said one young man. “Wow…” “Beautiful…”
It is obvious that he can hear the music of language in his head…the sound of history, ostinato, and winds is like the writing of someone who has practiced the craft for much longer that a few months. “Thank you. That is a beautiful poem,” I said to the student.
I then turned to another tutor, who is a part-time pediatrician and a mother of four girls. “Thank you SO MUCH for coming today,” I said.
“Oh, thank YOU. That was wonderful,” she said.
Yes, the thank-yous can become gooey sweet. But, as I’ve said before, the students and tutors are thankful for the 90 minutes, in which they get to be utterly human. We’re not thinking about survival, like every other animal in the country, and on the planet. Our tasks are to be human. To listen. To focus. To use language, a uniquely human skill.
Animals fight, protect, reproduce, bite back, snarl. The fittest animal survives…and then what?
In our classroom, in Florissant, we use words. We build trust. We get to be only human.