Can a poem change your life? In a word: Yes.
I’d been working as a reporter at a small suburban newspaper when I heard Mary Oliver read her poetry at Smith College. At the time I’d just gotten a new supervisor at work who was a stickler for rules. We ended up getting into a power struggle over my time card, which became symbolic to me of everything that was wrong with my job.
So when Mary Oliver recited those famous last lines from her poem “The Summer Day,” in which she asks: “And what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” I knew that haggling over how I’d filled out my time card wasn’t part of the picture I had for myself.
So I quit.
It wasn’t as though I was totally without work, though. I had a volunteer job. One that I didn’t seem to be so great at at the moment—but at least no one was asking me to fill out a time card.
I was teaching poetry at The Care Center, a school for teen moms who’d dropped out of high school. By the time I’d turned in my reporter’s notebook I’d taught three or four classes as a volunteer. The reason I say I wasn’t much good at it was that I couldn’t even get the girls to answer my questions, let alone write a poem.
During one of those first classes a student named Yari raised her hand. Oh happy day, I thought! I student is engaged; she’s going to ask a question.
“Teacher,” she began when I called on her. “Why do your hands shake?”
I looked down at my hands, which were at that moment holding a page on which was typed a poem by Emily Dickinson. The paper, sure enough, was fluttering at the edges.
Okay, I was shaking. Why shouldn’t I be? I was scared to death standing up there in front of a group of girls who looked like they’d like to kick me to the curb. Oh, and did I mention the part about having had next to no training as a teacher. This volunteer gig was something I’d dreamed up and jumped into on a liberal-white-girl impulse to do good in the world, and help those “less fortunate,” without much thought about what any of that really entailed…or even meant. To make matters worse, I was unemployed on top of it all. Those girls, in short, were all I had just then.
But Yari, was waiting for an answer. So, I did the only thing I could given the situation: I lied.
“I’m hypoglycemic,” I told her. I babbled on about how poetry class took place just before lunch and my blood sugar was low, and I’d be fine just as soon as I had a little protein in my system.
“That’s good,” Yari said. “I thought it was because maybe we make you nervous.”
The following week Yari raised her hand in class once again. This time she wanted to read a poem she’d written.
It was a poem about how she’d gotten pregnant and then was thrown out of her house by her parents, who were abusing drugs. She moved in with her boyfriend until his parents threw her out, too. She wrote of living on the streets, her parents taking her in again, and then her decision to forgive them.
When she finished reading she was in tears. I pulled a packet of tissues from my pocket and passed them across the room to her. As the packet traveled each student took one to wipe her own tears before the Kleenex finally reached Yari.
That day a spark had been lit. For sixteen years I worked at The Care Center, teaching teen poetry to teen moms.
I had found a way not only to live my own singular wild and precious life, but to help to nurture my students’ precious lives, as well.
Can a poem change your life? For me, the answer was a resounding, Yes!
Praise for Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House: A Teacher, Her Students and the Woman Who Inspired Them by Tzivia Gover (Leveller’s Press)
“Tzivia Gover tells us that according to the educator, Paulo Freire, ‘It is impossible to teach without the courage to love.’ In this beautifully written memoir, Gover musters up the courage to love her students despite the often difficult differences between them. By having the pregnant and parenting teens in her classroom learn to read, write, and recite poetry, Gover exposes her students to a whole new world. Upon reading their poetry, Gover is exposed to a whole new world as well.
Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House is a testimony to the power of poetry. Reading it will enrich your life.”
— Leslea Newman, Poet Laureate, Northampton, MA 2008-2010