WITS Voices: Simple and Complex
January 17, 2017
By Nikkita Oliver, WITS Writer-in-Residence
We find ourselves in the midst of hard times. They are nuanced and complex and yet simple all at once. Most of us can agree hate is not a valid political platform. This part is simple. Nonetheless, we are confronted with a new administration who seems to prefer hate and bigotry. Many of us do not know what to do now. This part feels complex.
It is 9:40 am. I step into my second period classroom at Washington Middle School where the students cheer, rush to the front of the room, and smother me with hugs. This part is simple. They are full of joy and happy to write poetry with me. As a teaching artist I live for these moments. They remind me why teaching art is a part of my discipline and practice as a creative. They remind me that a classroom does not have to be just a classroom. It can be a canvas, a spaceship, an incubator, and a safe(r) place—all at once. This part is also simple.
Due to a personal tragedy, I took a few weeks off from teaching with Writers in the Schools. So we first debrief some of what has happened while I’ve been gone. We move through the usual—issues with teachers, joys and struggles at home, school drama, birthdays. This part feels simple. This part feels human.
Inevitably, someone mentions the Trump campaign and the new administration. The room erupts with comments. They are not happy. Some of them are afraid. This part is complex.
Writing for me has always been a tool for survival. I started writing poetry in 3rd grade after stumbling upon Shel Silverstein in the Eastbrook Elementary School library. I had no idea what I was writing, but I knew that each time I put my pen to paper, I felt better. So naturally, when the eruption calms down, I ask the students to write a Fast Five about how they are feeling.
A Fast Five is our regular warm-up exercise—a warm-up I learned from a student at Rainier Beach who learned it from another writer, Laura Wright-Landrum. A Fast Five is five lines of poetry with five words per a line, using your five senses, written in five minutes.
The students begin to write. Some students ask if they can write more than one because they, in their words, “Have a lot to say.” This part is simple. “Yes, write as much as you need to write,” I say. Creating space for them to express their truth is why I am here.
When the time is up, I invite them to read their Fast Fives. A few students jump to the front of the room, their sixth-grade energy bouncing off the walls. They take their poet posture and prepare their poet voices to speak truth. Many of the readers express fear, concern, and a sense of powerlessness as they respond to our previous dialogue. This part is complex.
I want to tell them everything will be okay, but I do not know if it will. So instead, we move on to more writing. I remind them of one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler. Tell them how she inspires me to write more because of her belief that we can write into existence the world we need and want to see. I encourage them to put their pen to paper daily. Remind them that every time we write it is an opportunity to scribe into existence a world in which we feel safe and valued. It is times like these I am thankful for a pen, paper, and a classroom full of sixth graders who remind me how good the world is already and can be, if we are willing to write it into existence together.
Nikkita Oliver is a Seattle-based creative, teaching artist/mentor, and organizer. She was recently admitted to the WA State Bar Association to practice law, and is completing a Masters of Education at the University of Washington. She is the 2014 Seattle Poetry Slam Grand Slam Champion. Her writing has been included in the South Seattle Emerald and the Christena Cleveland blog.