A Poem for Summer

Summer’s here!  It’s always a joy to welcome the warm weather, the flowers, the picnics, and vacations. Many people schedule trips in the summer to take advantage of the good weather and more relaxed schedules. How about you? What will you be doing this summer?

I will be taking time this summer to write, visit friends, and relax. I’ve felt that my schedule is too crowded and my to-do list never ends. I have to remind myself that I’m the one in charge of my schedule!  Now that I work part-time, I have more flexibility. Yet my lifelong habit of packing my days with activity is tough to break. I need a reset!

The Butterfly Beetle

So, I’ll be taking some time off from blogging to refresh and recharge. I may post a poem from time to time and then resume regular posts in the fall. In the meantime, take a look at some of the older blog posts and revisit some old favorites. Happy summer!

The Sunflowers by Mary Oliver

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

It’s Hard to Read on the Assembly Line

Every day when I taught in a high school, the front parking lot was full of long, yellow buses. The kids streamed out of the vehicles, talking, sharing jokes, and laughing as all of us squeezed through the open front doors. And I can remember thinking that the beginning of the school day had a lot in common with the shift change at a factory.  Everyone is on  a schedule. Bells signal the beginnings and ends of sessions. The timeline must be obeyed no matter what else is going.  And most of all, everyone needs to comply and do their work if they want to get a promotion….or in the case of high school students, if they want to graduate.

School buses
School buses

At the school where I worked, the graduation test was given four times per school year and once in the summer. I never could find a dollar cost in the budget, but I imagine all of that testing took a huge chunk out of our funding stream. But most of all, there was pressure to get everyone to pass the state graduation tests. One year my principal “offered” prom tickets to seniors if they would agree to take the test for the second time, even when they had previously passed. “Maybe the students can boost their scores so we’ll have better numbers,” she told us.

But saddest of all were the students who still struggled with reading and were denied  help for longer than one year. Instead, because many of them had a special education diagnosis, we could give them an accommodation–which means that we could read the test to them and hope that they would pass.  The goal–of the school system administrators, the principals, and some of the teachers– was simply to get kids to pass the test–there was no looking ahead to the students’ futures. That situation would be someone else’s problem.  But in the 21st century, with so much knowledge about how to teach people to read, I felt that we were doing our students a great disservice to graduate them when they were barely literate.

And when I think about many of the students who were in my high school English and reading classes, I wonder what they are doing and if they still need accommodations.

The poem below is part of my latest collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems From the Classroom and was also published in ArLiJo last year.

The Autoworker on the Radio Explains How the Factory Works

You never stopped the line,
no matter what mistakes you saw.
We worked a lot of overtime fixing mistakes
but we never stopped the line.
 “This American Life,” 2010

And I feel the same way about Ben,
my student determined to graduate from high school
still reading reading at the third- or fourth-grade level.

The administrators say,
Ben needs credits to graduate,
reading class doesn’t count
if kids take it more than once.

So administrators find ways
for teachers to push him along,
like the auto factory grinding out
a Ford Focus with Fiesta doors
held on by Explorer bolts.

Nothing fits, and you can’t drive the car,
but we don’t stop the line
for Ben who understands a lot about history
but he can’t read well enough to take the test.

So we give him an accommodation—special help—
and someone reads him the test,
which worked well when he was seven
but seems foolish when he’s 17—
and hoping to get a job, hoping to graduate.
So I ask, Will someone read to Ben at work?

The answer echoes back We can’t stop the line.
But when you peek under the hood—
like the car with the wrong bolts
Ben will need repairs.

A Blessing for Freedom: John O’Donohue

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I am dedicating this post to my Celtic hero, John O’Donohue, poet, author, and scholar.

I first encountered O’Donohue’s work in the beautiful book he wrote about friendship, Anam Cara. O’Donohue explains that anam car is a Gaelic word that means soul friend.  An anam cara is not a lover, but rather someone with whom you have a rich and nourishing connection. In his clear and musical prose, O’Donohue explores the beauty of friendship and the riches it offers to all of us. He also takes the reader on a journey into the Celtic world of the soul and its relationship to beauty, growth, and aging. Sprinkled through his beautiful book, O’Donohue shares his poems, many of them written as blessings.

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The Cliffs of Moher

Anam Cara introduced me to O’Donohue’s poetry, and because I wanted to read more, I bought his book To Bless the Space Between Us, the last book he published before his death in 2008. Celtic spirituality is rich with prayers of blessing for every occasion, including the start of the day, new beginnings, courage, exhaustion, and illness. I’d like to share one of my favorite poems which I think is especially appropriate for where we are today.  I hope you enjoy John O’Donohue’s inspiring poem, “For Freedom.”

For Freedom

As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of the ground,
Opening the imagination of wind.
Into the grace of emptiness,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.

As the ocean absolves itself
Of the expectations of land,
Approaching only
In the form of waves
That fill and please and fall
With such gradual elegance
As to make of the limit
A sonorous threshold
Whose music echoes back along
The give and strain of memory,
Thus may your heart know the patience,
That can draw infinity from limitation.

As the embrace of the earth
Welcomes all who call death,
Taking deep into itself
The tight solitude of a seed,
Allowing it time
To shed the grip of former form
And give way to a deeper generosity
That will one day send it forth,
A tree into springtime,
May all that holds you
Fall from its hungry ledge
Into the fecund surge of your heart.

What Happened to Maxine?

My first job as a teacher was in Richmond, Virginia, working for a federal program that provided enrichment for at-risk kindergarten students. And while I had gone to high school in Baltimore’s inner city, I never knew the stories or the challenges of the people in my school’s vicinity. It wasn’t until I was working in Richmond that I found out what poverty looks like on a personal level.

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I remember going into a kindergarten room and seeing all of the children napping with their heads on their desks–the school was built over a landfill and there were roaches everywhere. In another school, one of my students had teeth etched with lines of black decay, so I asked his mother to come in so that I could talk with her about his dental care. When she smiled, both of her front teeth were missing.

In that first year of teaching, I was much too naive to know much about the role of property taxes in funding schools and how red-lining practices enforced segregated housing, but I saw the effects of those policies on the children in my speech classes. I still remember those children, and their stories feature prominently in my new book of poetry called No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. One child I still think about is Maxine—and I wonder whatever happened to her.

Maxine the Hugger

When Maxine enters the speech room
she throws her arms around my neck
pulls my face close to her cheek.
Her party dress is dotted with food stains,
the gray-white collar frayed and limp.
Maxine smells like musty sheets
draped over furniture in an abandoned house.
Blond bangs graze the tops of her brows, thick lashes
frame hopeful eyes. As if to answer the question
I would never ask, Maxine tells me, We don’t have no water 
in our house. She reads the worry on my face.
But Momma says not to fret
‘cause my Uncle Todd—he lives in the next house over—
he’s gonna run a hose
down to our place.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is tonight! February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilbon Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

Poetry for Challenging Times: “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”

When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience.  That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem  “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”  by Jan Richardson.  We all agreed that this poem  captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day.  We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.

How the Stars Get in Your Bones
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
—Jan Richardson

Stars Get in Your Bones
Wise Women Also Came

Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.

And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
now become—
who can say what day it happened?—
a beginning.

See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.

See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.

Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
and time?

I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.

I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.

This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.

Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
becoming beautiful,
becoming blessed,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.

[The Wise Women Also Came image is © Jan Richardson from the book Night Visions. To use this image or order an art print, please visit this page at Jan Richardson Images.]

 

No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom

I’m pleased to announce that my second poetry collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and New Academia Publishing.  I’ve spent nearly all of my career as a teacher and have met many memorable students over the years. Each one came to me with their own story–sometimes funny, sometimes sad, often heartbreaking. But it was learning their stories that helped me to connect with them in more meaningful ways as a teacher.

Children's faces

Praise for No Barking in the Hallways

“This is poetry in its finest hour. Bracken does what a great poet does best: reveal, provoke, wound and heal readers, all in such a fashion that one cannot be left unchanged. With poignant and sometimes painful imagery, Bracken creates moments in which we could easily be standing alongside her in the classroom, bearing witness to each moment as it unfolds. Collectively, the poems are a window into a system that is more damaged than the circumstances faced by of some of the children the system claims to serve. Yet the language is always equally as beautiful as the children for whom these poems are written. This is exemplified in one poem in which Bracken observes,

We can’t stop the line. But when you peek under the hood— like the car with the wrong bolts, Ben will need repairs.

For anyone who has ever worked in schools and with children, or for those who appreciate how language can transform lives, this collection of poems is for you.”

Morna McDermott McNulty, Associate Professor, College of Education, Towson University

Here’s the poem that Prof. McNulty referenced which was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 by Robert Giron of Gival Press.  The poem is based on the story of a young man I taught in a high school a few years ago. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting him and find truth in what Fred Rogers had to say when he talked about learning people’s stories: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

THE AUTOWORKER AND THE FACTORY MODEL

We never stopped the line,
no matter what mistakes we saw.
We worked a lot of overtime fixing mistakes
but we never stopped the line. ~ This American Life

And I feel the same way about Ben
my student determined to graduate from high school
still reading at the 3rd or 4th grade level.

The administrators say
“Ben needs credits to graduate,”
but reading class doesn’t count
if he takes it more than once.

So administrators find ways
for us to push him along
like the auto factory grinding out
a Ford Focus with Fiesta doors
held on by Explorer bolts

nothing fits, and you can’t drive the car
but we don’t stop the line.
for Ben who understands a lot about history
but doesn’t read well enough to pass the test.

So we give him an accommodation—special help—
and someone reads him the test
which worked well when he was seven
but seems foolish when he is seventeen—

and hoping to get a job, hoping to graduate
So I ask, Will someone read to Ben at work?
the answer echoes back We can’t stop the line

But when you peek under the hood
like the car with the wrong bolts
Ben will need repairs.

The cover art is an original painting by my daughter, Christella Potts, an art teacher in Baltimore County, and Deb Dulin of Dulin Designs did the layout.