Be a Bunch of Yous
This lesson exercises students’ capacity for imagination and memory. It may be adapted to the very young, the very old, and anyone in between. The key is simply to excite the students’ capacity to see themselves in space-time, as a series of stills, a flipbook of selves.
I dreamed this lesson up, literally: I was sleeping but awoke with this dream. In it, I was teaching poetry—how to write it—to a group of children who soon turned into teenagers, although by the end of the class all of the students had grown quite ancient, as had I.
I thought, Today we will write a poem! All of us together!
I said, “Wake up! Look at how you’ve changed in just this single year!”
I said to the children, “Ah, children! Close your eyes and think back to when you were very, very tiny. What do you remember? When did you begin to change? And why did you do it? Which grew first, your fingers or your toes? What are you now, and what will you be next year? Deeply imagine yourself in the past, that stranger that you were. Now be that stranger, that tiny baby. Let the tiny baby say, ‘Hello stranger!’ to the stranger you are now.”
THE LESSON AND THE DREAM
Re-create this imaginative space with your class by allowing students to close their eyes as you help them to visualize their past and future selves as coexisting simultaneously. Feel free to improvise upon or to recite the following things:
Are you surprised that baby you is talking to the you you are now? I am. Babies don’t usually speak! But then again, this baby is baby you, and a person can always talk to himself or herself. That is what you are doing: talking to yourself. And that is one thing a poem is—a person talking to himself or herself, who is often another person altogether.
OK, so now you are in a conversation, the two of you, baby you and the you you are now. What do you talk about? Maybe the two of you can be something other than you. That way you won’t get confused. In my dream, for example, I let one me be a leaf and another me be a spider on a window.
What about a third you or a fourth or fifth? By this afternoon, you will already be much older. Perhaps you will be your older brother’s or sister’s age or your mother’s or your father’s. What will that be like?
And who is that unrecognizable person in the distance? Children, look at your wrinkles and spots and saggy skin and all that life you have lived, all of it dimly or brightly glowing from behind your baggy eyes! How did you get so old so quickly?
You are over there, that old you, and here, too, this young you. Behind you is baby you. Is baby you crying or calm when elderly you tickles you under your chin?
Now let your present you talk to all those far-off-in-the-future yous. Can those future yous talk back to you as you are now? Of course they can! You can be them now, and you can be them at the same time that you are you now and baby you then. You are all of your yous at once.
When you are a very old person, what do you want to say to yourself as a child? When you are a child, what do you want to say to your very old you? What is the you that is just being born saying to the you you are now? Or what, for example, do all your yous want to say to the you you will be on the last day of your life?
Have your students write poems that are bouquets of yous. Give them instructions that resemble this directive:
Vividly picturing all your yous, now begin to write a poem. Think of it as a house where you can let all the yous sing and disagree. Let the poem be a bouquet of yous. Consider in what ways your yous are different from one another and in what ways they are alike. Remember, too, your yous don’t have to be people. You can let your yous masquerade as animals and plants or embody such ordinary things as paper towels, books, computers, and drinking straws. Before you begin your poem, try to write down as many of your yous’ favorite words as you can. What is your favorite word today, when you are a young fireplace? What will it be tomorrow when you are a middle-aged neighborhood? What was it yesterday when you were a baby front porch? Try to use all your yous’ favorite words. Favorite words often contain sounds or images that appeal to people. Use at least one favorite word in every single line.