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When the poetry is a prison. And the words set you free

He handed me this paper, written more neatly than normal, and said only, "Look this up. I wrote it down to be sure you read it."

I knew E had been studying poetry. My mother volunteers a two days a week to work with reading groups. She is enamored with the teacher, and she, a veteran teacher and reading specialist, has very high standards. She calls me regularly to report in on happenings in the class and on little, impactful moments that seem to have reminded her over and over why she loves this calling. And so I knew that that the third-grade class was beginning a poetry unit even before E told me. 

A substitute was in class the day they read this poem. My mother was also there and the sub told her that she was so impressed with E's comments on the poem. E had been irritated his regular teacher was out.

"That's a good sign, I guess," I replied, smiling, "when you are upset to have a substitute rather than thrilled." 

He agreed. It was the half-hour or so of homework and cuddling and catch-up that we do on Wednesday evenings before he races off with his dad that he handed me the sheet and I pulled out my phone and read to myself, then allowed him to take my phone so he could re-read the words right after me.

I felt a great pause pull into my many thoughts about this year, about the intellectual burst E has had, about the projects on Chicago architecture and biographies and slaves bounding for freedom and Native Americans in this region and the Great Chicago Fire and children who worked in factories during that era. About the structured, compassionate teacher with high expectations who has been a force of thoughtfulness and team-building and strategy and growth for my son and his class. About how teary I am to see the delight in my boy's face as he solves multiplication problems using the lattice method or connects the Underground Railroad to the hidden Jews of the Holocaust. About how much I wonder at his care and concern at the missing Nigerian girls, bullied gay students, if the Blackhawks will get to the Stanley Cup.

He is becoming more and more himself, and much of that is happening because of the sparks flying in his brain. A great, big part of that is what is happening in his classroom.

Still, the pause came when I took in the words that had so moved my nine-year old because I felt astounded by them myself, by the beauty and heartbreak and hope, by the haunting imagery and meaning. 

"I love that you love this poem." It was all I could say for that moment.

"I love this poem." He said back.

"Tell me why it speaks to you," I wanted to know.

"Because the guard judges him for his thoughts. But it is the guard who is really in prison," he explained.

"Yes. And I love it because it explains how we can feel trapped in our own lives, whether we are literally in prison or just feeling isolated, but we can still be free in our minds," I added.

"YES!" His face lit up in recognition. "This is what I was thinking. That's what I said in class."

Later, he asked what Damascus is. And Algiers. And Bagdhad. He was still thinking. The poem hadn't left me, either.

And so now we share these words and this wonder.

I will keep that slip of paper and the poem pulled up on my phone because it marks a moment and a connection and love of poetry that began with Shel Silverstein and will go on and on and on. I will keep it to remind myself how obvious it is that thoughts, on paper and screens and in our minds and in classrooms, can break us out of the clausterphobia and isolation, and bring us together in reminder that we are so free.

The Prison Cell

It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away…

It is possible for prison walls
To disappear,
For the cell to become a distant land
Without frontiers:

What did you do with the walls?
I gave them back to the rocks.
And what did you do with the ceiling?
I turned it into a saddle.
And your chain?
I turned it into a pencil.

The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn't care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.

He came back to see me
In the morning,
He shouted at me:

Where did all this water come from?
I brought it from the Nile.
And the trees?
From the orchards of Damascus.
And the music?
From my heartbeat.

The prison guard got mad;
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn't like my poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.

But he returned in the evening:

Where did this moon come from?
From the nights of Baghdad.
And the wine?
From the vineyards of Algiers.
And this freedom?
From the chain you tied me with last night.

The prison guard grew so sad…
He begged me to give him back
His freedom. 

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