On Friday, I attended the CASE (Council for American Studies Education) Conference at the Chicago History Museum. I signed up months ago, when I envisioned February to be a time when I would have time on my hands and need a rejuvenating event to nourish my teaching. This week, when I finally read through the conference offerings, I wished I hadn’t decided to attend; the offerings didn’t pique my imagination, and I thought, “been there, done that” about most of them. I contemplated not going, but I had already paid, so figured I should show up.
It turned out to be an almost magical experience.
Kevin Coval was the keynote speaker. After listening to his poems, and his personal journey to writing, teaching, and inspiring Chicago area teens to participate in the largest poetry slam in the country, I was hooked. At the end of his story, he showed us a clip of two Chicago teens reading at Louder Than a Bomb, the annual poetry slam that attracts 600 student participants. By the end of the elegy they wrote for murdered teens in Chicago, tears were streaming down my face.
And it was far from over. Coval also led a small workshop right after his talk. In the workshop, he led the teacher participants through an abbreviated version of his 12-20 week workshop in the schools — well, introduced us to one exercise. We wrote lists of words that described us, then read a poem called, “What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl (For Those of You Who Aren’t)” by Patricia Smith, a Chicago writer. After reading and discussing her poem, he asked us to write our own, imitating her style and repetition of “it’s” — this is how he gets students to write in class, with little time. He gave us fifteen minutes.
I wrote a raw, raw poem. Of course, he asked people to read the poems. I didn’t volunteer right away, but when he started scanning the circle, looking for readers, his silent nod told me it was my turn. I read, reluctantly, not realizing that the words I had written would be challenging to speak aloud. A few seconds of trembling, and I finished.
I’m posting it here, in all of its rawness, with perhaps a thought of future revisions.
What it’s like to be a mom to two four-year-olds adopted from Vietnam (for those of you who aren’t)
It’s meeting the morning, snuggling in the warmth of smooth-skinned, black-haired tiny bodies
It’s looking in the mirror
While she says — “mommy, our eyes are different
Some mommies are different”
It’s holding on too tightly in a crowd
It’s sobs of terror at the zoo when a do-gooder takes him from the Penguin House’s darkness and gloom — explaining
“He didn’t look like he belonged to anyone in there”
It’s Tet parties, red rice, fish sauce, faux pho
It’s mao, hai, ba, bone, nam, sau, be, tam, chin, moi
It’s learning to count to ten in Vietnamese
It’s the looks from strangers
Wonder, pity, awe
It’s the anguish of her tantrums and the sorrow of her loss
It’s the conspicuousness of our family
It’s her worry at night — “You and daddy are old. I don’t want to have to get another mommy and daddy”
It’s not wanting to be a savior
It’s being the one who is saved