WITS Voices: Holding 67 Hearts
November 23, 2016
By Laura Gamache, WITS Writer-in-Residence
On my ninth day with fourth graders at Broadview-Thomson, I asked the kids to take out their hearts, and hand them in to me. I had drawn each heart on red copier paper before our second meeting, after the teachers had expressed doubt the kids could reliably draw them themselves.
On the second day, kids wrote and drew things, people, places, ideas, activities and animals they loved inside the hearts. We used that information and energy in the “Like You” credo poems they wrote after we read and talked about Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton’s poem “Like You”. The poem was printed in Spanish and English on their handout. In one class, where there were several Philippine immigrants, I was excited that each stanza was read aloud in Spanish by a different child.
Like you I love playing
outside feeling the breeze run through
I believe that there should
be peace everywhere.
Like you I love school the way
others spend their time to help you.
I believe everyone should succeed
Like You I Love Things
Like you I love the lovely colors of the
painting that overlooks you
I believe in chocolate chip cookies saying don’t eat
me as it crunches
Like you I love the sweet sound of the
violin saying hi
I believe you can finish that thing you
have been dying to finish.
Like you I love shooting stars
shimmering in the dark city.
I believe that peace exists
in this world because this
is a possible world.
Like you I love baking cupcakes
with black frosting on the top.
I believe kindness is possible in
this world, and if you’re looking
for kindness, this is your world!!!
On day seven kids drew, literally drew, with colored pens and pencils, from one of the paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s The Great Migration painting series, and I read the text while showing them the pictures from the book put out by the Museum of Modern Art. (These paintings are coming to the Seattle Art Museum in January.) Many of the kids are immigrants, and Lawrence’s story of thousands of southern African-American farmer families, including his own, migrating to the cities of the North beginning in World War I, spoke to them. Immigrant, Migrant. Here’s how the book concludes:
And the migrants kept coming.
Theirs is a story of African-American strength and
courage. I share it now as my parents told it to me,
because their struggles and triumphs ring true
today. People all over the world are still on the
move, trying to build better lives for themselves
and for their families.
One class, including their teacher, broke into spontaneous applause.
The Great Migration
One of them holding a very big bag
like an anvil. And absolutely dry. The
dirt on the hill is everywhere. Its
color is like ebony. The people are
moving in the south. Because they are
How many people are there? Don’t
they get thirsty? I would feel worthless,
yelling, screaming, crying, hunger. I
would feel thirsty.
Jacob Lawrence asked Langston Hughes to illustrate One Way Ticket, a book of his poems, and I was inspired to bring some of Langston Hughes Dream poems into class the next day.
On day eight, I asked the kids to take out their hearts. The play on words was fun, some of the kids mimed taking their beating hearts from their chests, and the rest of us made grossed out faces and giggled. One very accuracy-oriented boy explained to us that the human heart is shaped differently, nodding sagely. Once the red papers were on their desks, I talked about dreams, the kind of dreams related to hopes and wishes, to plans and possibilities, then asked them to write and draw some of their dreams either into the hearts or alongside them, perhaps inside cloud shapes.
I gave them a handout, but I also brought my daughter’s book, The Dream Keeper, and other poems, and read the inscription I’d written. I didn’t know if this was something kids knew about, but many said their parents write to them in the books they give. We talked about feeling closed in and constricted, ordered about, how your body tightens when you’re scared, when others keep you in a small space. The kids stood up and made sure they had space to move freely, then they whirled with Langston Hughes’ “Dream Variations”. We read “The Dream Keeper” and “Dreams”, and they wrote.
Nathawn wrote his poem in English, then translated it, joyfully and proudly, with a little help on one word from a classmate, into Spanish:
Yo encuentro mis sueños
adentro de mi Corazon.
Yo encuentro mis sueños
amedio de mis grande
Yo encuentro mis sueños
abajo de mis jugetes.
Yo encuentro mis sueños arriba
de mi suave nubes.
Yo encuentro mis sueños cuando
I Find My Dream…
I find my dream inside
I find my dream between
snow and summer
I find my dream under my
I find my dream within a
I find my dreams when
I find my life in the ocean
I find my dreams in
I find my hope inside
The day after our ninth day was election day. I was at school photocopying poems for their reading and class books. As school let out the elementary hallway filled with jangly energy. Kausar made a beeline for me. She had been moved by The Great Migration poems, and, when I pointed out lines in Hughes’ Dream poems that other African-American writers used as titles, loudly declared, “I want to read Black Like Me!” Kausar wears a hijab, and is first generation African-American, an immigrant. “When will we know that Hillary Clinton has won?” she asked me fervently. “I think we’ll know by 9 pm,” I said. So naïve.
In the days following the election, I held 67 hearts. Those red paper hearts kept me going, kept me thinking of the kids who had written their dreams and loves in black and red, which I read and reread, carried in three stacks, in a single bunch, individually, from room to room or in my WITS bag. Talking with a poet teacher friend, I said, “I have their hearts!”
Broadview-Thomson’s hallway walls teem with Anti-Bullying bulletin boards. One has rows of pale blue construction paper shoes stapled to a white background, each shoe penciled with a child’s empathetic statement about someone else, walking in that person’s shoes. At the end of the main office hallway, in your face as you turn left to reach the elementary stairway, a poster declares “Stand Up and Speak Out!” A bully has won the presidential election, and I must, we all must, read and act on this one.
Laura Gamache believes reading and writing can save your life. She holds an MFA from the University of Washington, directed their Writers in the Schools MFA Internship Program for 10 years, and has been a WITS writer since 1997. She was a Jack Straw Writers Program fellow in 1999 and 2002, Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, “nothing to hold onto,” and her poems and teaching essays have appeared in many print and on-line journals and anthologies, most recently Sixfold Poetry (Summer 2016). Her band, Feeble Prom Date, is imaginary.