Or to Flip a Buddhist proverb: When the Teacher is Ready, The Student Appears!
There is a cliche teachers bandy about that “our students are our teachers!” But sometimes, it’s true, not just a broadly applied worldview or something we say at Happy Hour over seltzers to redeem a tough week.
This summer, I got to nerd out teaching Writing Mechanics (soon re-dubbed “The Inner Life of Words”) to TEAK Fellowship’s 7th graders with an assistant, my former student Aaron M, who is now entering Yale as a freshman. I taught him personal essay writing and grammar when he was their age– one of those students I knew Could Write if he wanted to.
I was like, “Hey, Aaron– (acting all casual) –could I see some of your writing?” (FEED ME!) and he agreed. “Mostly poems” he said, like they were going to be some tea-bag slogan to apologize for. Not at all.
A Poem from my Student as Teacher!
He often speaks like he is apologizing in advance. But “Fat”, this poem he showed me? My student as teacher, totally unapologetic! He loves words, like, a lot. Sometimes shy and fumbling when he speaks spontaneously, he’s anything but when he’s writing.
Maybe it’s because I’m a mom and I’m currently preoccupied with fat phobia in our culture, but this poem (a draft, he clarified) made me stand up and salute. How come a teenage boy can figure this out, but the rest of our culture can’t?
Fat (A Poem for My Mother)– **Draft, but what isn’t?
The skinny boy in my dorm,
six-foot tall and all bones and beautiful,
scoffs as he speaks of the Latin teacher he deems
far too fat
for his youthful thirty-six years.
His lips curl in disgust. In anger, even.
It’s his fault.
I think of my mother:
thirty-six, too, and stick-thin
until she had me. Today,
she carries with her stretch marks
and flab and extra pounds of fat,
and I wonder if the Beautiful Boy’s lips
would curl just as tightly,
spit just as spitefully
in speaking of the body that kept me safe.
I wonder if he knows that each time he praises me,
he praises her.
I wonder if he knows she is Atlas.
That if the world of Zumba and WeightWatchers
weighed as much as her children,
she’d carry that one, too.
I wonder if he knows she tried. Tries.
That when I was too old for a tit to suck on
and old enough to stay at home alone,
into the realm of weeknight workout classes.
That our home, now, is stacked
with healthy snacks and organic produce.
But that time and money are Time and Money,
and such things cannot always last forever.
My mother wants to be thin.
I know. I have seen it. But
she wants to be a mother more.
And still, and still, and still,
the Beautiful Boy may scoff and spit
and curl and be angry,
and he may say it is my mother’s fault
and that he knows.
But I know, too.
I know that when my two year-old sister
hides her gap-toothed smile
in my mother’s fleshy stomach,
too shy to look anywhere else,
she thinks nothing of what it means
to be thirty-six
or far too fat.
And when my brother, still not even a year,
is rocked to sleep and sung to bliss,
he pays no mind to what
fault may lie in the arms that rock him.
He knows only that he is safe.
I want to scream this all at the Beautiful Boy
and let him know
that the love I have seen
transcends any body.
But I don’t. I keep quiet
and thank God for my mother
and every pound of flesh she
has sawed off
and given to me.
I know. I have seen it.
Q & A with Aaron, my student as teacher!
I had not read poems by Aaron until this one. So of course I had to ask him about the difference between writing in different genres, and why he chose poetry– if he even knew! (Sometimes, form chooses us!)
Me: Is there something one genre does that another can’t, or can’t as well? What does genre support?
Aaron: This is tough. I guess it comes down to what you want to leave your reader with and in what way. By this I mean: you can deliver the same message in a personal essay and a poem, but five lines in a poem vs. five paragraphs in a personal essay will have very different impacts. It might mean the reader has to do more digging, or that the language is more emotional.
From a writer’s perspective, sometimes it is tiring to lay everything out, detail by painstaking detail, the way one might often do in prose. This is not to say that poetry is not detailed (no, detail and attention to it is crucial to poetry), but rather that the liberty of form, length, and language awarded by poetry can sometimes help us, as writers, to avoid the painful process of saying things flat out, as is often done in prose.
Me: (Cool, glad to see I have nothing left to teach you).How does art help you process/behold being a young man in the process of individuation?
Aaron: I feel a lot. And I talk to friends, but of course, I also worry about being overbearing or a burden when I talk to my friends. But it’s nice to have something to do with your feelings, so I write. Sometimes poems, sometimes songs, because those feel a little more dynamic. It’s a coping skill, for sure.
On another level, sometimes writing feels like the only thing I’m good at–sometimes a frustrating thing. [I]t feels good to be recognized for a strength. I suppose it’d be nice if it were a bit more exciting in its presentation (not everyone appreciates a good poem reading the way they appreciate someone with a nice singing voice), but it’s grounding to have that long-standing identity as a writer. It gives me a “thing” to be known for. Which shouldn’t be important, but alas!
Me: Do you have a spiritual practice?
Aaron: I am not very religious, but I do certainly believe in things and Things far bigger than me.
Sneak Peak at Aaron’s College Essay (accepted: Yale)
And because I asked him if I could see it, his college essay, which was about how he resolved long standing questions of racial difference in himself:
Buzz kill because I quote the last para! “Oddly enough, only after I began to shed my preconceptions of myself was I able to accept my racial ambiguity that had plagued me for years. What had frustrated me was my own duality, my inability to neatly check any one box. What I realized was that my duality was not dual at all, that my identity was far more than the two spheres of “black” and “white.” In developing for myself meaningful connections and passions not dependent on race, I created a distance between myself and my racial identity, a distance that allowed me to depend less on my curly hair or my wide nose for a sense of wholeness. My sense of wholeness was running lines in the black box as Aaron the actor. The writer. The singer, the skier, the student. Just as much, and yet just as little, I was Aaron, the anomaly. The wide nose, the tan skin, the child of a pale-faced mother. And yes, I was — am — Aaron, son of my tall, dark-skinned father. “
I think I’ll just sit here and drink some tea. Some of the things we are lucky enough to help open up in others never get closed, and what comes from that open space is art, art, art. Thank you, Aaron. When you’re super-famous come back and leave your siggy on this blog.