The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.
— Diane di Prima
It’s an evil day when there’s no coffee in the teachers’ lounge at 8 A.M. and it’s so cold outside I could see my breath in the parking lot on the way in. I’m a poetry teacher, and this morning I’ll be visiting two fourth-grade classes. I’ve brought with me a poem called “Sweet like a Crow,” by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. Here are a few lines:
Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed Through a glass tube, Like someone has just trod on a peacock, Like wind howling in a coconut . . . Like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep And someone walked through the room in ankle bracelets.
It’s a perfect poem for teaching about simile and metaphor, though I had to cut any references to breasts or genitals or lovemaking and edit out an opening epigram that gave the poem a political slant. I didn’t like doing it, but years of teaching poetry in elementary schools have taught me to child-proof a poem as efficiently as a butcher guts a chicken.
Today my two classes are larger than usual: thirty-five children in each. The first goes well, even though one boy is working on his fourth poem about football (“It’s all I think about,” he explains), and there’s still no coffee yet, and it’s freezing, so the only place I want to stand is below the noisy heater. “Sweet like a Crow” affords an opportunity to talk to the children about oxymorons. The first example to come into my caffeine-deprived brain is “military intelligence.” I catch myself and substitute “deafening silence.”
It was at this same school, the Wednesday after the 2004 presidential election, that I was reminded it’s sometimes best to keep my political opinions to myself. That day I burst into tears in front of a roomful of fifth-graders. In my defense, I had just heard John Kerry’s concession speech on the drive to work, and the sight of the students’ naive, curious faces had undone me. I thought of the children in Iraq, first starved by sanctions and then traumatized by war, and of the new army recruits, only a few years older than those kids, being sent overseas in greater and greater numbers to be mutilated and killed, to kill and mutilate. Some of the students I’d taught ten years earlier were likely over there now.
To explain my tears, I told the students that I was sad because George W. Bush had won — probably stolen — the election, and a lot of people were going to die as a result. I’d forgotten that I was in the only classroom in the whole school where there were not one but two framed, signed photos of President Bush hanging on the wall, along with a letter thanking this particular teacher and her husband for their generous campaign contributions. Somehow, in the shock following the coup — I mean, election — this fact had slipped my mind. Or perhaps I had stubbornly refused to believe that a teacher could support a president who was befouling the whole public-education system with his ignorant edicts.
But she did support him. This teacher let me have it in front of a roomful of kids, pointing out that some of the students also supported Bush, and that their opinions were to be respected. She was right, of course. The goal is not to force our point of view on children but to teach them to ask questions and tolerate uncertainty.
After our lesson in oxymorons, we proceed to write a group poem on the board. The children contribute similes for the sound of eating a carrot, from “It sounds like popcorn popping” to “It sounds like whales making sweet conversation with each other.” One little boy raises his hand, and when I lean in to hear his idea, he whispers, “It sounds like a bomb.” He’s whispering because he knows that guns and bombs are off-limits as topics — their teacher has said so, and I have backed her up. But he can’t resist. In his imagination the most exciting sound is a bomb blast.
Because I haven’t had my coffee yet this morning, I have no immediate response to his suggestion. The teacher has left the classroom for a few minutes — probably to enjoy a luxurious trip to the bathroom — and the classroom aide is little more than a witness to my failure to keep control. Although I believe in democracy and free speech, I do not always practice what I preach, especially in a classroom full of children who are looking to test my limits. So I say, “No bombs.” When another boy starts to protest, I cut him off. “No bombs, no guns. Period.” The students, now working on poems at their desks, start bargaining, because that’s what kids do. They don’t have credit cards or huge muscles or driver’s licenses, so their greatest asset is their inexhaustible energy, which will often win out against my all-too-exhaustible supply.
“What if the bomb went off underwater, and nobody got killed except a bunch of fish?” one boy asks.
“What if it was a laser gun that only shot aliens?”
A girl tattles on her tablemates: “They’re writing about grenades and knives.”
I hear my voice rising, becoming tight. “No guns, no bombs, no grenades, no knives, no violence. Can’t you guys think of anything else?”
But no, now that the forbidden topic has been introduced, they want explosions, war, fiery car crashes, weapons of mass destruction. It has become a case of boys against girls. Most of the girls write about preapproved, safe topics like emotions, animals, and nature, while even some of the gentler boys succumb to peer pressure and demand permission to write about bazookas and AK-47s, as if to prove that they are real nine-year-old men.
I don’t understand what it is with boys and violence. It isn’t all boys, I know. One of my six nephews takes ballet lessons and reads Nancy Drew books and has no interest in playing war. My big-softy boyfriend cries at sad movies and gets up to hand-feed his senile cat in the middle of the night. But I have come to think that there may be something innate about the male fascination with weapons and war. Girls (and women) can be just as aggressive, but they don’t gravitate to guns and bombs. Cliques and hierarchies, ostracism and gossip have been our traditional female weapons, and though they hurt like hell, they don’t sever limbs.
Another of my nephews, age eleven, recently had to write a letter to his pen pal in England, a girl. “I like war,” he wrote. “What do you like?”
Imagining that the recipient was a sensitive child whose grandparents had survived the Blitz during World War II, I suggested he amend the sentence to “I like reading about war,” or “I like video games about war,” or “I like military history.” “Because,” I explained, “you wouldn’t really like war if you were in one. If a bomb fell on your house and destroyed it and killed your family, you probably wouldn’t like that.”
“OK,” he said with a shrug. He didn’t have an ax to grind, like his aging hippie auntie. He was just trying to tell this English girl about himself, and the honest truth is he likes war — or, at least, he thinks he does.
A classroom is a monarchy where the teacher makes the laws and keeps order. For the last ten minutes, law and order in this class has been threatened by a power struggle between young-male-warrior energies and the fiercely conservative (in the sense of conserving all that is precious) life force of a female poet who is old enough to remember the Vietnam War being broadcast into her living room. Only when the teacher comes back does order descend once more, like a blanket over a bed.
It saddens me that I resorted to the oldest authoritarian move in the book — “Because I said so!” — to enforce my rules. I want to respect each child as an individual, albeit one who should feel the same way I do about the horrors of war and the urgency of social justice. And the children would, too, except that a fifty-minute class period isn’t enough time to get into the necessary nuances. Or so I tell myself.
Here’s a confession: Last week I went to see the latest James Bond movie, the first twenty minutes of which is one long chase sequence with cars blowing up and people getting hurt or killed in colorful ways. And — don’t tell the kids — I was whooping and hollering with the rest of the moviegoers, adrenaline coursing pleasantly through my veins. Plus Daniel Craig, the actor who plays Bond, turned me on, with his rock-hard pectorals, cool command of weapons, and effortless control of everything . . . except his own heart. Maybe it wasn’t high art. Maybe it didn’t, as the Bible says, “enlarge the place of my tent” the way poetry does. But I found it to be great entertainment — which makes me a big fat hypocrite.
I also know, because I live in Oakland and hear the occasional sound of gunshots outside my window, that violence is all around kids today: in the streets, on the news, and sometimes in their homes. If they can’t talk about it in poetry class, then where can they talk about it? In my city there are makeshift shrines on street corners where young people have been gunned down: plastic flowers, photographs, a teddy bear nestled beside a bottle of liquor. There’s a more subtle violence within the educational system, where children’s psyches are toughened in preparation for adulthood in our inhuman economy. Perhaps writing about bombs is their way of asserting their individual voices.
As a young girl, I was discouraged from fighting, but sometimes I did anyway. I remember regularly pummeling one of my brothers until he grew bigger and stronger than I was. I’ve struggled with rage all my life, often turning it against myself in the form of depression, or against others in the form of sarcasm and tirades. Sometimes I fantasize about wringing an opponent’s neck, or I have nightmares in which I kick, punch, shoot, and destroy my enemies — then I wake feeling drained and horrified and relieved. I experience anger in my body as a rush of hot energy beginning in my belly and surging up my arms and down my legs. A therapist once advised me to take up kickboxing. Instead I practice an anger-management therapy of my own. I’m thinking of patenting it. It’s called “Screaming in a Parked Car.”
“It’s a good thing you’re a woman,” an acupuncturist told me once as he inserted needles in my forehead. “If you were a man, you’d be in prison for assault with all that heart fire [anger] you have going on.”
Maybe that “heart fire” is where my poetry comes from. I want to help kids who are blessed and burdened with the same fiery energy, to show them creative outlets for it. But can I do this and at the same time prevent them from indulging in their culturally induced fascination with war?
Part of the reason I’m so rabidly against anything military is that I am the proud descendant of a draft dodger from Russia. My great-grandfather went AWOL from the czar’s army and was captured and sent to a Russian prison camp, where life expectancy for Jewish deserters was short. The prisoners were told to line up and count off: “One, two, one, two.” The fellow standing next to my great-grandfather had a premonition that those who counted “one” were marked to die, so he said to my ancestor, “Look, I’ve got an odd number, and I have a family. Please change places with me.” My great-grandfather shrugged and changed places with the man, who ended up getting shot; meanwhile my great-grandfather escaped, came to America, and fathered eight children.
The moral of the story: Avoid military service at all costs. During the Vietnam War, my mother commented aloud that she would send her boys to Canada before she would let them be drafted. She was lucky. The draft ended before my brothers were old enough to serve, so she never had to make good on that promise. My father, too, was lucky in the timing of his birth: too young for World War II, too old for Vietnam. The idea of enlisting never occurred to the men in my immediate family. (I did have an uncle who was in the army, but he never saw action.) Their attitude was: Sign up to go to war? What are you, crazy?
But many of my students have fathers and grandfathers who served, and they are entranced by uniforms, camouflage, sharpshooters, and all the latest blow-’em-up technology. And I respect their ideals of service and sacrifice. The other day at the airport, I saw a young soldier in full camouflage gear saying goodbye to his wife and two-year-old daughter. He would not put the girl down, and she grabbed his cheeks and made him blow raspberries and played with his soldier’s beret. The mother looked like a teenager. The three of them made up an unbreakable family unit, soon to be separated. How can I honor his sacrifice and at the same time declare my opposition to all war?
I’ve started to collaborate on a play about the effects of military recruitment on a family. I originally envisioned the military recruiter as a satanic figure, but in the course of doing research and listening to soldiers’ stories, I have learned that the decision to enlist is more complex than that. A good friend of mine paid for college by serving in the navy. His timing was right, and he spent a couple of years sailing around the world in between the Gulf War and the current conflict. He met servicemen and -women from all over the country and heard their stories. He learned the constellations from the ship’s deck at night. “You wouldn’t believe the long philosophical talks we had at one in the morning,” he told me. But he didn’t see combat, didn’t get his legs blown off, didn’t suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, was never put into a situation where he killed a civilian or a child. He was simply part of this huge machine called the “American military,” which protects our monied interests around the globe. And I am part of this huge machine called the “American economy,” and every day I jump into my car to drive many miles on the freeway to this wonderful job I have.
No End in Sight, a documentary about Iraq, also expanded my view of soldiers and veterans. The filmmakers did not interview wild-haired radicals spouting pacifist rhetoric. They talked to career military people: clean-cut, upright, good soldiers who had gone to Iraq to do their best and had become disillusioned by the corruption and incompetence in the chain of command. These earnest, pained men and women used the word responsible a lot. They saw themselves as bringers of order, defenders of the weak, builders and shapers. Not so different from me.
Despite the return of their teacher, some of the boys have not quit bargaining. “What if it was an alien, and he had a ray gun? And he only shot bad guys? But on this particular day he made a mistake and blew up the whole earth? Would that be OK?”
I hear myself begin to make a speech. I did not intend to make one, but I am the daughter of a woman who stubbornly hung a poster on the front door of her house that said, “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” as if to educate passersby on this concept. So I stand up and use my big, loud voice and my ugly morning frown lines and make a speech about how war is not a video game; it is a terrible conflict in which people get hurt and killed, even children. How would they feel if someone in their family were killed? It’s not that they can never write about violence, but when they do write about it, they need to understand that it causes great suffering.
A child raises his hand: “My grandfather was in World War II, and he had fun.”
Another kid: “My big brother’s friend went to Iraq, but he says he doesn’t want to go back. He says even if he was drafted, he wouldn’t go back.”
It’s near the end of class, and a student from Hong Kong asks that we do the traditional sharing of work before I have to go. I apologize for the digression, and most of the students look around with expressions that say, Thank goodness that’s over. I wonder what she was talking about.
Their teacher, who has been teaching for forty years and has perfect control of the class, says, “Angela, read your poem.” And Angela, who speaks English as a second language, stands and reads, “Sadness feels like the pain in a wolf’s heart / That makes it howl at night.”
Poetry is supposed to bring to the reader the visceral news of the world. If I were running things, I’d say: Let the kids write about violence. Let them write about toilets and underpants and farting and pooping — not for shock value or laughs, but because poetry is a tool for exploring all aspects of human experience. But don’t let them get mired in the shadow subjects. Help them pass through and come out the other side. In a society both obsessed by violence and in denial about death, that’s no easy task.
After class is over, I stop by the teachers’ lounge and breathe the aroma of coffee. Someone must have brewed a pot during third period. Once upon a time I was an ambitious young feminist who wanted to teach in a university setting because I feared that working with children was somehow not important enough. I wanted to have a say in the Big Conversations of my time, and I thought elementary school was not a place where those conversations could happen. Now I wonder whether there is any other place on earth as seething with political energy as a roomful of nine-year-olds. They are brighter than I am, and have more energy, and even though they have me outnumbered, I feel privileged to be there. I pour myself a steaming cup of coffee. There is only 1 percent milk to put in it, and 1 percent milk is an oxymoron, but I pour it anyway and am grateful.