The teacher thanked us all for coming, ending her welcoming speech with, “And I’ve told all the kids that the parents are here to enjoy their poetry, not to judge their poetry.”
“Aw, come on,” whispered the hipster rock star dad sitting behind me (no, really, he is a rock star; his band is opening for Death Cab for Cutie on tour this spring). His barely-audible joke made me stifle a snort, for I am ever a fan of those who enjoy with judgment.
As each middle schooler took a turn hopping up on the Reading Chair at the front of the room, snorts were stifled while judgment flowed freely, particularly when a boy sporting an unruly mop of hair hopped into the reader’s chair and began, “My brother likes to eat beaver…”
Had Rock Star Dad emitted an under-the-breath hiss at that point, concurring “So do I,” my day would have been perfect.
Despite being nervous, the language arts class of sixth grade poets comported themselves well, and while there were many predictable poems about snow, friends, and trees, there were equally many that contained flashes of surprise. Strangely, at least three poems referenced kiwi–making me think the teacher had tossed out a random example of that green fruit as something original or attention-getting in a sea of rhyming couplets about kitties and bicycles. Perhaps it is in seventh grade that students realize they can’t all grab the teacher’s example for their own poems and still call it “fresh.”
There were quatrains, free verse, haiku, limericks. There were several poems that leaned startlingly heavily on Jersey Shore references (I did find a place in my heart for one Star-Wars-leaning lad’s “From Wookie to Snooki,” however); there was a standout piece called “My Grandmother’s Fridge” that lamented, “Filthy/Stinky/A blight on mankind.” Well able to respect the guts it takes for a gangly, red-cheeked kid to get up in front of 40 parents and peers, I applied my clapping hands liberally.
Because so many of the kids read with soft voices–and because several wild siblings in attendance were using the occasion to hone their toddler versions of “Nessun Dorma”–I often couldn’t hear the poems. What’s a judging, snorting mom to do? I had to turn my attention to the humanity in the room.
Middle schoolers are fascinating creatures–so accomplished yet on the cusp of something; so complete yet unfinished; so smart but idiotic; their confidence wadded inside a tangle of insecurities. Any time I see pre-adolescent kids, I want to walk up to them and whisper, in a quick moment of assurance, “You are wondrous already. But still, it will only get better, so keep at it, Toots. There’s so much fun ahead of you, and only small bits of it will involve kiwis and Jersey Shore.”
Most heartening to me, as I scanned the mass of sixth graders, was the fact that my own child’s personal hygiene wasn’t the most execrable in the room; sometimes Girl comes out of the shower, lets her hair dry, and I’m left staring at the resulting ‘clean’ and thinking “Did she forget to use shampoo?”. Until we got to this stage as parents, I had forgotten what an unkempt lot twelve-year-olds can be. Too old to submit to parental ministrations, youngsters in this developmental stage of life are still figuring out how to apply soap to all the nooks and crannies of their bodies, still resisting the amount of scrubbing their oil-secreting hormones demand.
Fortunately, when Girl’s name was called, and she stood up, Byron and I had a quick moment of registering, “Why, she actually looks quite tidy. You know, relatively speaking. Seriously, Kids of Room A308, y’all might take a note here of what brushed hair looks like! And the part where she’s wearing a cardigan over her uniform polo? Yea, try that one out sometime, O Ye Ruffian Poets!”
Her poems were on par for, em, grade level. Because she stuck to the poems her teacher had circled as performance-worthy, Girl actually didn’t read my favorite:
Yummy, orange, juicy, squishy, fruit
It is full of flavor and taste
Orange fruit is great, don’t throw down chute
It would hurt it to go to waste
Better, indeed (‘tho less my favorite), was the poem her teacher had circled:
When I look up, I see clouds, and sky
There is so much life up there, and peace
This place is way up there, up so high
In my heart it holds a piece, small piece
Just as I was mulling over the idea of holding a piece of peace and gloating that my kid didn’t look like she’d been flattened and then fluffed by a peloton of inline skaters on her way to school that day,
the daughter of the rock stars walked up front. For five years now, I’ve delighted in the disheveled appearance of Rock Star Daughter. She delivered disheveled even in first grade, when the rest of the kids were still full of “My mommy braided my hair this morning and zipped me into these corduroy slacks.” Rock Star Daughter, from the start of her public appearances, has presented as recently rolled out of bed, somehow achieving quirky charm through bird’s nest hair and unwiped eye crust.
It was with great anticipation, then, that I regarded her back as she walked up to the Reading Chair. I mean, if she’d mastered a “I Refuse to Brush Anything” look so early on in life, I could only imagine what new levels she’d bumped it to in middle school. Would there be radishes growing out of her cheeks because one time someone pelted her with seeds, and then the stuff found purchase ‘neath the grit? Would she have dreads? Would she have teeth?
Plopping onto the Reader’s Chair, Rock Star Daughter lifted her head, looked at the audience, and announced her poem.
I didn’t hear what she read. I was too busy composing my own verse:
“Rock Star Daughter”
Despite Mom and Dad’s touring
You look wonderfully boring
Hair smooth in ponytail
Red glasses sharp and porcelain face pale
You no longer look like you’ve just been snoring
Rock Star Daughter was a veritable librarian: neat, clean, ready to discourse on Dewey.
Amazingly, even though her appearance was traitor to everything they stand for, Rock Star Daughter’s parents applauded enthusiastically at the end of her poem. So proud was Rock Star Dad that he pulled out his Bic lighter and, flicking it with a flourish, waved the tiny flame high: the apex of fatherly benediction.
Sadly, the flame–sensing a trough of ready fuel nearby–snatched at opportunity and leapt onto the greasy hair of a sixth grader one row over.
As flames danced on poor Nathan’s head, and the automatic sprinkler system kicked in, dousing many kids’ noggins for the first time in weeks, I rued the lack of Pantene in my purse; properly armed, I could have dabbed at follicles left and right before rinsing and repeating. Woefully Pantene-free, though, I merely grabbed my bag and dashed for the door,
composing one final couplet on my way to the parking lot. It elucidates my lesson of the day:
“Snarls and Gunk”
Setting a middle schooler’s hair on fire
is the best way to cleanse it of muck and mire.