Writer and Educator Tzivia Gover is the author of “Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House”. She lives in Western Massachusetts. This is her first commentary for New England Public Radio.
When I first started teaching poetry to teenage mothers 14 years ago, I thought these young women, who’d dropped out of high school and were collecting welfare, needed both literacy and beauty. They needed Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Clifton. I was certain that poetry was essential.
My grand illusion that I could easily change their lives with a few stanzas or sonnets was wrong. My students’ arguments against it were strong, persistent, and loud. “Why are you asking us to write poems?” they’d ask. “We don’t have time for this,” they’d insist.
What I discovered I could do,was to give them an hour on Monday or Wednesday afternoons, to get quiet inside and access their imaginations. But even that was difficult to achieve.
Quiet is a scarce resource. I had to battle bursts of bochinche (Spanish for gossip), text alerts, the sounds of hip hop and Reggaeton blaring from passing cars, and the occasional fire drill.
Even when the room was still there remained the anxious tugging of their fears that they weren’t doing it right. “Miss, is this what you wanted?” “Miss how do you spell …?” I found myself shushing them, and I saw how they bristled at being shushed.
Silence, I came to realize was a skill that had to be taught.
Having grown up Jewish on Long Island, I had to learn that skill, too. And my students, who are young, poor, and who come from cultures that sing and dance, who shout to one another from second story windows, across the street and down the block, needed to learn it too.
And they showed me there are other kinds of silence, too: silence of refusal and of forgetting.
Sometimes these young women wanted to forget the city they woke up to that morning. Some days they didn’t want to put words on their memories, or their hopes.
One afternoon, I asked my class to write about a food that means home to them. Jayrette, who is 17 years old with a four year old son , penned her name at the top of the page, and wouldn’t write another word. Yes, her spelling was poor, and she didn’t know where to put the periods, but that wasn’t the problem.
Later, alone together in my office she told me she’d grown up in a series of foster homes and counted herself lucky when she was fed at all. Home? Special food? She didn’t want to think about it, let alone write about it. The most seemingly innocuous prompts are landmines blowing open stories of neglect, rape, loss, and longing. Which is precisely why I invite, I implore, my students to write.
With time the words come. And sometimes those words bring tears. And then they bring breakthroughs.
And it all starts from mining those layers of inner stillness and silence. We’ve written by candlelight with Baroque music playing. I’ve used a timer and had them listen whole heartedly to one another for two minutes, then three, then four at a stretch. Afterwards, students say they’ve never experienced quiet like that before. They tell me, they want to do it again.