I have always been a fan of poetry. From Walt Whitman, to Emily Dickinson, to Langston Hughes, the creative and mysterious front of a great poem brings a certain counterbalance to the everyday order of life.
The Atlantic recently published a piece by Mark Yakich titled, “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies.” As I read the article, it struck me that certain strategies for understanding poetry also apply to understanding adolescents. Both subjects are often confusing and sometimes leave us flabbergasted, but—with some practice and deep thinking—both are within our grasp.
Try to meet a poem on its terms not yours. If you have to “relate” to a poem in order to understand it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. In other words, don’t try to fit a poem into your life. Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.
Sometimes it’s hard for us as educators and parents to understand the world of middle schoolers. Change is abundant in their lives, and the concepts of order and logic often elude them. Within the framework of school and your household, try relating to your emerging adolescent on his or her terms. This may mean engrossing yourself in popular teenage books such as The Hunger Games or Wonder, or watching contemporary teen shows such as Degrassi or Girl Meets World, but spending some time in this world might give you some insight into what’s rolling about in your son or daughter’s mind.
A poem cannot be paraphrased. In fact, a poem’s greatest potential lies in the opposite of paraphrase: ambiguity. Ambiguity is at the center of what it means to be a human being. We really have no idea what’s going to happen from moment to moment, but we have to act as if we do.
We all search for black and white, cut and dry; we want order and sense to prevail. As adult role models, we have a duty to ensure that our schools and households are systematic and orderly; structure, after all, brings consistency. But, we must allow for ambiguity. Letting middle schoolers set their own course, stumble in social interactions and sometimes struggle with academic materials are needed experiences. We simply cannot predict where things are headed, but we must trust that healthy relationships with our middle schoolers will help them navigate the unknown in meaningful ways.
A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding…It’s the same with being alive: wonder and confusion mostly prevail.
None of us can escape the fact that life is mysterious, creative, joyful and confusing all at once. We search for meaning in our lives, and, as parents and educators, we also search for meaning in the lives of our children and students. Yet, allow your child to take ownership over certain areas in his or her life. Make room for the fact that there are places in your child’s life that you simply won’t, can’t and shouldn’t unlock. Isn’t this the beauty in our lives? Never forget, though, to also make room for that time when your child is wanting to share his or her world with you. Your listening ear and wise words at this time—whenever it may be—will make all the difference.
Enjoy this timeless poem from Shel Silverstein, and here’s to a fantastic upcoming holiday season!
Where the Sidewalk Ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows
For the children, they mark, and the children,
The place where the sidewalk ends.