29 April 2014
Magdalena is my student in a visual arts/literary arts residency at a local middle school. When I first met her, at the start of the semester, I thought she had a disability — speech or cognition, social at least. At first, she wouldn’t speak above a whisper. In large-group discussions, I had to cross the room to hear her. She didn’t write when asked. Words seemed some kind of trial to her, so I didn’t push it.
But during an art project, something hands-on, she came to me for help. She was building a book out of cardboard, with blank brown pages. Would I help her hold things steady while she laid down the glue?
“Will you decorate it?” I asked, pointing at the cover while the glue dried. “What kind of book is it?”
Magdalena shrugged. In her small voice, all breath, no pitch, she said, “I don’t know.”
Eventually, she painted the cover of the book blue. No words inside. And this became how we worked. She listened to my lectures, my clever examples. The others students wrote, more or less, when prompted. She shrugged at her blank pages.
“Nothing?” I asked, again and again. And she shook her head slightly, a shake as slight as her voice.
Then one day last week, I pushed. “Write about a particular age, a memory. Choose a vivid moment. Give me details.” And, incredibly, she wrote.
More shockingly, when it came time for students to volunteer to share, Magdalena shared, although not directly. She pushed her notebook toward her classroom teacher, an embarrassed 13-year-old’s half-grin on her face. She covered her narrow face with her thin fingers as the teacher read.
“When I was 12, I wonder why he didn’t stop.
“I wonder why he …
“I wonder why he didn’t know better …
“I don’t know what he was thinking … ”
We had been talking, just before this, of mystery. Of how a poet could give just enough detail to ensnare the reader, to invest a simple, sunny childhood memory with just enough cloud that the meaning of the poem suddenly turns dark.
“I want to know what happened,” said José, the class jester suddenly serious and attentive to my lesson.
“Yeah, me too,” said a girl across the room. “Yeah,” said another.
I deflected to literary analysis. “Yes, we do want to know, don’t we? That’s the magic of the dark turn.” But in my head I was already composing the email to the school staff.
That evening, messages with school staff exchanged, the appointment with the guidance counselor already hanging over Magdalena’s unknowing head, I sat at my desk planning the next lesson. I didn’t get very far. Instead, I prayed for Magdalena, that the counselor would draw her out, let her know she was heard, that she would eventually recognize words as her allies, not her betrayers.
Today I went to class. Magdalena shone a bit with some kind of triumph. Her entire body moved more freely, taller, more open, her mouth no longer clamped in its hidden vise. I don’t get to know what happened, with the counselor or before that, with “him”. What I do get to know is that Magdalena looks like someone heard her.
But today in class, Magdalena also made it clear that she will not write for me again. She will take the consequences, bad grades, blank pages, no field trip.
The poetry teacher in me is hurt by this. Didn’t I do her a favor, give her some ink for her cardboard pages? But the mother in me is pleased. Fight on, dear girl. Fight me, fight the page, fight him, fight all of us. Fight on.