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The Poetry of a Classroom

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There is something terribly troubling in the media and political discourse about education in our time. We so urgently need critical thinking to gauge what measures we can engage so we might inspire our children to study and invent their own paths to the gateways to what we call knowledge and wisdom -- and so that they become caring parts of a society we call our own. All too often we, instead of hearing about creative reaches to enhance the passions of our kids, we tend to hear about schools and communities being punished for lack of performance.

There have always been stories of teachers who turned kids on and got them to care, teachers who cared enough, and tuned in enough and got on a footing with kids that reverberated in their art, poetry, and much more.

One such teacher is Dennis Bernstein, whose volume of poetry entitled Special Ed: Poetry from a Hidden Classroom, comes out on February 8, 2012 courtesy of New York Quarterly Foundation. Dennis Bernstein is better known to some readers as journalist and radio host for Pacifica, the West Coast sibling of WBAI. And some of these poems hail from 30 years ago, with Bernstein having revisited them at points to leave his current mark.

However be warned: this is not the pretty poetry that makes you smile knowingly at the talent of even the most impoverished lives made quaint. It's rather the gift to the reader of sad, tragic, even brutal information. It's the jolt to the body as some of the words land viscerally in the gut. And at other moments, it's the dreamy reverie of a child, a teacher, or the reader that cradles a torn to bits but still beating human life -- a possibility in rhythms that will no doubt want to be reread and become remembered.

For those who insist on remaining insular or self-congratulating on their/our progressive endeavors, these poems will be off putting. Their humanity brings us to the door of the harshest and saddest emotions, and the awareness that there was then as there is now, poverty and crime and lack of caring in the too often divisive United States of America.

The poems are small, and they are small but packed stories. They give form to tales which hint at the ways in which these kids -- these people -- needed to be seen and too often were not. One, called "tamisha's alphabet" goes like this: Tamisha makes up her own words. Her alphabet is full of sounds/that come before A and after Z--/The 26 letters in between/only get in her way.

The poem reminds me of how much we know or suppose we know or forget about diversity in terms of our children's learning styles and needs. The poem called "Pea-Brain" tells of this with short precision that leaves us wandering into knowing how smart some kids -- and grownups -- are who don't fit into the boxes of our decisions as to how things are supposed to go. It's like this in "This one's a real pea-brain": That's what Dean Riley tells me/as he shoves Jason into my classroom/and shuts the door in our faces./Next morning, Jason is spinning jacks/on the hard-tile floor. He calls me over/
and insists I hunker down for a front-row seat. "Look," says Jason,/
"look at the ballerinas dancing on their tiptoes."

And then the sadness of the teacher about his limitations, and the wish and wanting and possibility in the face of violence, death, and trauma, is shown in "the way it is": Some days, I can hold back their hunger/with a recipe for sweet potato pie,/or divert it with a story about the biggest lie ever told./Sometimes, I can snip the fuse from the dynamite and close the charge before/it explodes./I can rescue them from the murder scene/with songs or poetry or an urgent session/on the trampoline./Other days, death combs its hair with the bones of my children. . .

The children are not all "innocent" or only sweet. There is crime lurking, done by them or to them and their families. And there is fear and desperation and so much hunger, physical hunger. And there is toughness, the toughness they have learned: "from where?" we might want to ponder. Here is "strange tears": Paulie finds tears/in the oddest places./He finds them/in the mirror's eyes./He knows they can't be his. He's too tough.

This is the stuff that could haunt those of us ready to hear. Apropos of at least remembering, this is "present tense": Can anyone give me a sentence/
using the present tense for "remember"?/Jojo?/I remember the look on Fat-Jake's face after my sister shot him.

Dennis Bernstein has had his own history of undiagnosed dyslexia, with the good fortune in meeting up with a willing, caring and creative teacher who helped find him and his needs and style in translation. His poignant sensitivity and availability to pain and connection pose a question for me which is: Does it have to be those of us so out of the box ourselves, so much feeling like strangers in a strange land or outsiders longer than is comfortable, to give a shit about making education a source of constant hope?

And with it, with the above question comes another: how to broaden the caring and get us to "get" we are all connected to the sorrows as well as to the grandness of being human?

The last question is one I'm into working on. In the meantime, enjoy this read and whatever chords it might strike in you.