SOMETIMES in school, one is given the impression that words are important. Ridiculous! I've seen some classes who labor beneath the tyranny of words, as if ``reading'' and ``writing'' were dictators or demigods constantly scrutinizing and evaluating the worthiness of their lowly subjects. Any student so trained will learn to despise such cruel and inhuman practices, and justifiably so. As soon as adults can no longer force them to read and write, they will quickly and gratefully abandon the activity. In truth, the real importance rests on either side of the words: on the writer and reader or on the writer and his or her deepest self. Rather than hold language as the be-all and end-all, it is more helpful to see it as ``vehicle'': Words bring us out to where the world is going on. They make connections between the creatures who think, speak, and dream in words. Like sacred artifacts, we hold them in common with the people around us and the generations before us. Words compel us to look hard and listen closely to the experiences we pass through all too quickly. And almost miraculously, they reveal dimensions of our own minds, our memories and imaginations, that were unavailable to us the moment before we began writing or reading the story or poem. As a poet, the reason I value words so highly is because of what they are sometimes able to help me touch.
If you can teach students to be relaxed, honest, curious, and especially playful with their words, learning the art of language will be as natural to them as recess. I've seen that happen with young people again and again.
In one school, I was introduced to the youngest classes in an assembly program where I talked about why writing poetry gave me such pleasure. I read them a few of my poems and explained that, though they might have to wait a week or two, I would soon be coming around to their classes to help them begin poems of their own.
One first-grade boy became so excited by these ideas, he decided not to delay and began immediately to write poetry. Almost daily, Julian would raise his hand during circle time and ask to share his latest creation.
The teacher and his classmates were proud of his poems. And they seemed not terribly surprised when Julian would read one of his poems a second time and it would turn out entirely different. This is because, at the time, Julian knew how to write no words whatsoever. Yet, more than many of my older students, this first grader had grasped the sort of intimate connection that must be at the heart of a poem.
The teacher asked Julian to save one of his poems and ``present it to the poet as a gift when he comes.'' And what a gift it was! It delights me just to think of it. (As he read it aloud to me in front of the class, the teacher gently ``sssh-ed'' a girl who, perplexed, said, ``... didn't this poem used to be about a hippo?'')
Though clearly not up to his level, ``Julian's Poem'' was my gift to him in return.