I used to teach a poetry class at a college in Manhattan. Most of my students were underprivileged and were not used to writing, reading, or really caring about learning. One of the first things I wanted to get across was the idea that not all poets were dead white men. There were poets among us who were of every culture and race and very much alive. The writing spanned all forms and not just metered, rhyming structures.
Another thing I aimed to get across: writing can be fun! Who knew? This was an unfamiliar idea to almost everyone in the class. An early lesson was teaching that they could have fun, that it was okay to experiment, that it was okay to care about what you wrote and have it mean something to you and your life. That was the point of showing them that poets existed now and across all colors and race. That was the point of showing spoken word poetry and poetry in lyrics, of naming poets besides Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson…poets like Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez or Amiri Baraka.
I remember very vividly challenging my students to challenge themselves and allow them to question when they stopped having fun with learning. I asked, “When you were a child, did someone not care about a painting or drawing you made? Did someone say stop laughing or writing because it was foolish? Did someone tease you for what you loved to create? Did you stop creating as a child because you felt it was silly or unimportant?” When I asked these questions, I got looks of recognition and understanding, looks of acknowledgement and perhaps sadness. When did we stop creating? When did we stop having fun? Did something somebody say stop us?
Lately I have been awfully frustrated. I know I’m not getting enough sleep. I know I’m spread thin. I know I’m not really taking care of myself. But the greater problem is I’m not enjoying my children: when they laugh, when they have fun, when they goof off. I failed in the mothering class that teaches children to behave and then have fun. I’m not the type of mother who wants kids seen and not heard. I want them heard; I want them creating; I want them making messes and having fun and laughing. But I also want them to listen when I tell them it’s time for bed, or it’s time to brush your teeth or do your homework or whatever “needs” to be done. I have much work to rein them in because my leash has been too long.
But. But. But. I do not want to be at a point where I am that adult that, from self-frustration, limits children. Parenting is a tremendous challenge. And when we are frustrated, we limit our children. If they laugh, if they are funny, if they are having fun, I want to enjoy that. My daughter was laughing hysterically today and it was funny. But I was so annoyed that she and her brother were being rude at the table that I would not join in on the laughter. And what do they think?: that I’m no fun, that I don’t know how to laugh. And they’re right. I suffer from the same affliction my mother did and I’m repeating some history: she had fun with her friends but not with us. I don’t totally do that; I’m aware of this and how I grew up and try to adjust and I have had some successes. But I still repeat some behaviors; it’s so easy!
Yet I have the lesson of my students and the message I tried to convey. I know that many of them were limited; I was too, so I appreciate what that shutting down is like. By the end of the term, to see how much they learned and how much more they recognized about the faces of poetry and that those faces could be theirs, that was a tremendous reward. It is a reward at home that my children love to read and that they create. It is not a reward that I am frustrated and the thought of limiting them in laughter or joy is painful.
My original point in starting this post was to wonder when did we, if we did, lose that joy to love, to live easily, to create? As we move away from childhood, we take on more responsibilities and we start to care more about what “people” think. Certainly as adults we have stresses that children do not have. But children have stresses too. Children care too; children care about what “people” think. Yet they are joyful and fun and lively and energetic. We can learn something from them in not limiting ourselves to only what we are supposed to do or “think” we’re supposed to do. We can learn from them to splash in puddles, to catch raindrops, to feel the wind on our faces, to get ourselves full of mud and dirt. Sure sometimes we have to get to school or somewhere but not always. When we limit them, we limit ourselves. And when we limit ourselves, we do not live.