Guest blog from YourWords STL Development Manager, Dr. Michelle M. Haberberger
Every educator I’ve ever known has heard this old phrase: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Even though most people use it as a lame attempt at humor, I’ve always been insulted by it.
American teachers, as a whole, are underpaid, misunderstood, and unappreciated. This common adage contributes to these problems by implying that we, the educators, did not choose the classroom. Instead, we were forced into this secondary, sedentary role because we somehow failed to make the cut as practitioners.
During my twelve years in the classroom, I tried to strike a balance between the “doing” and the “teaching” of my content. I am a voracious reader, a lifetime student, a published author, and a doctoral-level professor. This is not some overcorrection to deep-set insecurity. (I do have plenty of those, but we’ll get there in a second.) Instead, reading, writing, and educating are my lifetime passions. I am my truest self when I am engaging in these actions, regardless if I am lecturing to a crowd or drafting on deadline at my laptop.
In mid-July, I received an invitation to attend the Young Chicago Authors’ “Write the City” online conference. This selective, prestigious workshop series invites some of the most influential poets and performing artists in the Midwest to present sessions to both educators and students. (Due to COVID-19, it took place on Zoom.) While a few of the classes are aimed at specific audiences, most of the programming involves all of the participants learning as one. As a writer, educator, and one of the newest staff members of YourWords STL, I viewed this conference as the ideal opportunity to grow and learn among talented, like-minded artists.
Talented? Yes. Like-minded? Absolutely not. While the concept appealed to me, it petrified me in practice. The seasoned artists required participants to analyze and craft poetry in real time. Many sessions involved time limits. “We’ll come back together in fifteen minutes,” these forces of poetic nature would say. “Then, we’ll share.” I’ll cut to the climax of this allegory. I didn’t share. Instead, I listened with my camera turned off and my microphone on silent. I absorbed the raw courage of the other participants, but I found myself unable to take a breath and throw my own words out for the community to hear.
In short, I was called upon to “do,” but I froze. Writing, true writing, requires risky vulnerability, brutal honesty, and endless courage. These are traits that I thought I possessed. Yet, when I was called upon to share my terrible poems with the other educators and young people learning alongside me, I retreated.
As a new team member of YourWords STL, I am continuously inspired by the young people we serve. They face their daily realities, which are often more trying and terrifying than my own, with relentless determination. They shout their creativity into the destruction and chaos of their daily lives. With only a few directions from their artist mentors, these young people speak their truths and spit their rhymes without hesitation or regret.
I didn’t share because, in that moment, I became more worried about being Dr. Professor/Educator/Professional Bigshot instead of just another artist, making sense of the daily flailings of life through a selection of words.
If I’m going to continue serving this YourWords STL community, I have to learn how to “do” as well as “teach.” Below are the poems I wrote during the sessions. They are not edited. I tried to leave them as they were written: raw, real, and rough, responses to the energy of the community of artists I was privileged to share digital space with during the conference.
They aren’t perfect, but art created in response to emotion never is. They’re actually a mess, and I consider poetry probably my worst writing form. Yet, consider this my messy, imperfect, rough draft penance. Enjoy.
Inspired by a recent BBC article
Until we recognize that a Tweet doesn’t permit the length for appropriate analysis or discourse … Until we release our children from the “A/C/F” identifiers of report cards … Until we open our ears to voices beyond those humming melodies that affirm our preconceived notions and biases … Until we label standardized tests as tools for maintaining segregation of our public schools … Until we gain the courage to ask “how” did we get here … Until we probe further to asking “why” is this our reality … Until we look in the mirror and question the “who” of our own identities, perspectives, and biases .. Until we say that we can never, truly, see every truth as it is known to our neighbors .. Until we recognize truth as a construct, not a Tweet …
We will never attain the ideal.
Skate ‘A’ Way
The skate laces, slick from the secretions of
hundreds of children before me. The wheels
with rusted bolts and leather cracked and creased
Once I slide them on, there is a moment of surrender.
We were not born on wheels. We were not made
to move with such grace, effervescence, confidence.
Not young girls who grew up in house trailers with
Walmart shoes and wild, flapping, curly mops for hair.
Yet I, I on those wheels, they claimed me; and I, them.
Rink of pockmarks, dirt smears, uneven floorboards.
Rink of spilled soda and blood and tears and body odor.
Here, I could skate, skate away
until all problems were left in the
Skid marks of rubber wheels. Trailing along behind me:
the lonely home; the undiagnosed mental illnesses.
Still there, clanging along like tin cans on a car bumper.
Mop of hair flying like a banner.
But, can they keep up? No, they cannot maintain the pace.
A child cannot carry such burdens. Instead, gift them with
opportunities to get away. And away. And away.
You’ve been with me since the beginning.
For so long, I didn’t realize you manifested
a film over my eyes. My every thought, emotion, and
self-actualization became saturated with your presence.
But you became greedy. You had already seeped
into everything I was, everything I (un)wanted to be.
But you craved more. You outgrew the cave within which
you had spent all of my life before that point. You sought
to extend your reach until you no longer encompassed me …
… You wanted to become me.
And since, after all those years, I identified you as a part of myself,
I could not see the lines where you ended and I began, if I ever began at all.
You almost destroyed me, you little ****ing piece of ****. You almost had me.
But I’m here. Because I’ve banished you back to your cave.
I’ve learned to seek out the stain you leave on my thoughts, goals, dreams, and soul.
I know that your reality and my reality are incongruent, and it is my lifelong task to seek the inconsistencies.
You’re part of me. I’ll never completely exorcise you because your tendrils are still wrapped into my core.
But I put you back in your place.
And you, now humbled, will be with me until the end.
*Title inspired by The Babadook (2014).
I turned it upside down for the first time today.
On its foundation of beveled glass, a spiderweb of cracks.
Cracks that spread up the golden sides, encompassing it, forming a
pattern of splits and rejoinings that, taken as one, appear intentional
like the sparkling, stained windows of Gothic cathedrals.
I had mislabeled it as perfect. I had assumed its
precognizance infallible, its omniscience eternal.
It, too, had to shatter. And shatter and shatter.
Cracks spread, forming the pattern
I had assumed always present.
Should this splitting of “predestined” paths bring joy or fear?
To know, that in all things, the decisions are mine?
That not even the candle, paired with its Cards, that foretold my failures
is capable of failure? Of shattering?