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Summer Ends…Learning Starts

For North Philly middle school students, a poem reminds them that all things end—even summer vacation

For North Philly middle school students, a poem reminds them that all things end—even summer vacation

Thirteen pairs of lips pucker against tender blackberry flesh. Some nibble tentatively at the purple skin, while others pop the fruit into their mouths whole. The reactions are varied: a grimace, a grin, a dissatisfied groan. Evidently the berries are not as ripe as I had hoped. They chew with mouths ajar, their teeth and flicking tongues tinted the color of ink.

These are the seventh grade students of the St. James School, a North Philadelphia middle school that partners with the Vetri Community Partnership to provide locally-sourced, made-from-scratch school lunches and teach children the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. The St. James administration has generously allowed me to commandeer their 40-minute skills class to perform a food-writing workshop with the students. As they munch on the blackberries I brought them, I read aloud Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking”,” a poem I first encountered in my 12th grade AP English class. They read along silently, savoring both poem and fruit.

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When I am finished reading, I let the poem stew in their minds long enough for them to finish eating. Then I ask for a volunteer to read it a second time.

“Poems should always be read at least twice,” I explain. “First, so we can hear the music in it, grasp the most basic meaning, decide how it makes us feel. Then again, so we can listen for metaphors and similes, for rhyme scheme, for what the poet is saying on a deeper level.”

A hand bolts up before I finish speaking. A girl in the front row, her hair wound into large double buns, leans across her desk as if to reach out and grab me.

“Go ahead,” I say.

She reads with a robust musicality in her voice that only falters when her tongue trips over two unfamiliar words: “clot” and “briars”.” As she glides through the final line, she gazes up at me, wide-brimmed eyes searching mine for confirmation that she has done well.

“Thank you; that was great reading,” I say. “All right, now that we’ve read the poem twice, I want you all to —”

Another hand rises, this time in the back. It belongs to a tall, lanky girl with legs so long her knees poke up over her desk.

“Question?”

“No, I want to read.”

Her request catches me off guard; having been a shy middle-schooler myself, I wasn’t sure I would be able to find even one willing participant to read in front of the class for my lesson, let   alone two. It’s a delightful surprise.

As she too reads the poem, I look out at the students and observe the voracity with which they consume the words in front of them. Though they fidget in their seats, some turning the pedals attached to their desks as if they were stationary bikes, their eyes do not look up from their papers.

“[The poem’s] about change,” a student says, “and how we can’t stop good things from ending no matter how much we want to.”

Halfway through the reading, the girl with the double buns leans over her desk again and, spotting the leftover blackberries that I have set aside, asks for more. I whisper back that I might be able to give her another if there are enough left for everybody who wants one.

“Don’t worry about that,” she says. “Just leave me the whole container.”

When the poem has been read a third time, I ask the students to take a moment to consider it.

“Think about how the poem makes you feel. What does it remind you of? What’s happening on the surface? Is the speaker only talking about blackberry-picking, or is there a deeper meaning here?”

This time the hands are shyer. They creep up here and there, half-raised, to state the plot. Their answers are spoken low, with the hint of a question in each one as they seek assurance that they are on the right track.

“It’s August and the blackberries are ripening.”

“And how do they look when they’re ripe?” I ask.

“They’re ‘glossy purple clots.’”

“How do they look before they’re ripe?”

“They’re ‘red, green, hard as a knot.’”

“What’s the speaker doing with them?”

“He’s picking them so he can eat them later.”

“And what eventually happens to the berries?”

“They turn sour and rot.”

“Why does the speaker say he always feels like crying?”

“Because it’s not fair that all the berries go bad before he can eat them.”

As I try to find the right questions to guide them toward the poem’s meaning, a girl in the back of the room raises a timid hand. “This reminds me of summer,” she says. “It reminds me of how the whole time you don’t want vacation to end, because then you have to go back to school. But you know eventually it’s going to be September again and you’re going to have to go back.”

“Yes!” I say. “That’s exactly what Heaney is getting at. Can you tell me, then, in one sentence, what this poem is about?”

“It’s about change,” she says, “and how we can’t stop good things from ending no matter how much we want to.”

Her comment is met with epiphany. The other students nod; whisper long, drawn-out “ohhhh”s; grin with the satisfaction of their realization.

“This reminds me of summer,” a girl says. “It reminds me of how the whole time you don’t want vacation to end, because then you have to go back to school. But you know eventually it’s going to be September again and you’re going to have to go back.”

 

As an exercise, I ask the students to write down their favorite food on a sheet of paper, and on the back of that paper I ask them to describe something they hope will stay the same forever although they know it won’t. This will be our own little poem. For three minutes, the classroom is quiet save the sound of 13 pens scratching on paper. As they write, the students’ expressions vary. Some stare at the wall, their lips upturned and their eyes half-closed as they reminisce on past meals. Some write as if they cannot get their responses down fast enough, their faces etched together in concentration. A few others write slowly, pens held limply between their fingers, each movement across the page more reluctant than the next. Their gazes are hollow, their faces downturned. Looking at them, it is not hard to guess which half of the assignment they are working on.

When the class has finished writing, we wind around the room, each student reading out the food they love most. It’s enough to make the stomach rumble. Pineapple, pizza, egg rolls, cheesesteak, cornbread, bacon and waffles, fried chicken, baked mac and cheese, fudge rounds, biscuits, popcorn chicken and spinach dip. The first half of our poem is accompanied by a chorus of “ooh”s and “mmm”s. Several students smack their lips. They are all smiles now, each food off the list filling them with a new appetite.

“Poems should always be read at least twice,” I explain. “First, so we can hear the music in it, grasp the most basic meaning, decide how it makes us feel. Then again, so we can listen for metaphors and similes, for rhyme scheme, for what the poet is saying on a deeper level.”

As we go around the room a second time, reading aloud the things we have no power to preserve, there is a palpable shift in the mood. Some answers are on the lighter side. Summer, football season, youth. Others weigh heavy. I want my brother to stay young forever, I wish my parents wouldn’t age, I want Barack Obama to stay our president, I wish my grandma never died, and, finally, I wish my dad was alive again.

A solemn silence hangs thick in the air as we digest what has been said. As I thank the students for sharing hopes and dreams and fears so personal to them, I notice a profound confusion in their faces. How did we get here? their expressions ask. How did food get us here?

Sara Albert is the author of a collection of short stories entitled Toys of Misfortune, as well as a young adult novel, The Deadly Nightshade. She is an editor for The F-Word, the University of Pennsylvania’s feminist art and literary magazine, and an editorial assistant for Wharton Magazine. This is one in a series of articles that will run on The Citizen and SafeKidsStories.

 

Header Photo: Timothy K. Hamilton for Flickr

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