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What I Learned at the High School
1. Location, location, location. As soon as I entered the building I reverted to a 16 year old state. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to get in trouble for something. When my cell phone vibrated in my bag I thought, “oh no, it will be confiscated,” and walking through the halls hugely pregnant made me feel I’d brought shame upon myself or at least done very, very poorly in Sex Ed.
2. Listening to poems is easy and good. What a wonderful thing to sit in a room full of people and listen to poems. A simply delightful way to spend an hour. Interested students, teachers and staff, chosen by lottery, sat along the back of the stage. There were about 25 of us and one by one we went up to the podium, briefly explained why we loved this poem or chose this poem, read the poem and sat down. Aside from one row of too-smooth jocky-looking guys and a few very tired looking students sprinkled about, everyone seemed to be listening most of the time. I thought, “even if the students never hear this many poems again, they’ve heard these” and felt happy.
3. The audience knows who’s cool. You could feel it, as a reader reached the podium, if the kid (or teacher) was adored or respected or lusted after by others. It wasn’t always the student I would have expected (from their looks or deportment) that the audience responded to, but the way the energy in the auditorium fluctuated in response to each reader (before the reader began) was very clear. Depending on who was at the podium the audience hushed or rustled, held their breath or slouched. Poems that were not so gripping were afforded more respect if the reader was beloved.
4. Anyone, cool or not, commands attention when reading an Allen Ginsberg poem.
5. Students like to hear poems that “teachers don’t like.”
6. Students like to hear the poem “America” by Allen Ginsberg.
7. Students like to hear “Building Nicole’s Mama” by Patricia Smith.
8. Students will mouth the words along with the reader as they listen in rapt attention and then finally burst into thunderous applause if the director of athletics gets up and says, “if you could only see how beautiful my wife is when she reads this to my daughters,” and then reads Goodnight Moon.