Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When the shy one completely baffles me...

Lisette is one of the smallest girls in the one honors class I teach. Gentle, thin as a rail, glossy black hair, high cheekbones, beautiful, dark, almond-shaped eyes. A soft, kind, accented voice. Spanish is her first language. She came here, to my knowledge, a few years ago and still is serviced by the ELL teacher a few times a week.

She is one of those kids who could easily slip through the cracks of the classroom if I didn't constantly remind myself to notice her, beacuse, it seems to me, she wants to be utterly unnoticable. I don't play that game. She plays Miss Bashful. When called upon, I am usually met by silence. She blushes and sometimes a mischevious smile plays on her lips.

The few times she does speak to the group, she holds her hand over her mouth and mumbles. Yeah, she's one of those that I sometimes talk to with my hand over my mouth and ask if she can hear what I'm saying. If you can't hear me, then I can't hear you. And I WANT to hear, need to hear what you have to say, Lisette. Otherwise, I can't help you.

So, it's poetry time. Last night's homework was to write a poem. Any poem. I had not, until later today, taught any poetry-writing. I just wanted to see what they were capable of so I could have some kind of a baseline. Who is afraid of poetry? Who is dying to try but only comes out with cliches and strained rhymes? Who absolutely abhorrs it? And who does it flow from naturally?


After a few kids bashfully and reluctantly shared their poems, some funny, some strained, some cute, and some brimming with raw talent, my eyes fell on her. Her notebook was open on her desk, her little arms crossed protectivly over it. Ah, but I saw a twinkle in her deep, brooding eyes. Busted.

"Lisette? How about yours? What do you have there?"

No response. The notebook was under her mental lock and key.

The class: "Awww, c'mon, Lisette. We wanna hear it! C'mon, do it!" The outpouring of support from this inehrently sweet group of kids touched me, but not her. So much for peer pressure. She vehemently shook her head.

"Sweetie, we'd really love to hear it. A good writer shares their work and talent with others. A great writer takes risks. I did not ask you to write a journal entry. You were aware that you may be asked to read your poem."

"C'mon, Lis! We won't judge!" "Please?" "Bet it's good!" Ohmygawd, I love them so much.

Nope. Her arms tightened over her notebook. Time to start bargaining. She wasn't leaving my class for lunch until she stepped outside of the glass box she had built around herself. I know her strong, melodious accent is one of her biggest sources of self-judgement. "Okay, Lisette. How about I read it aloud for you? You can stand next to me." She balked. I had her there. After some more arm-twisting, she finally caved and trudged up quietly, and stood close by my side.

My eyes flew over the page. My heart caught in my throat. I wish I could post it on this blog, but it wouldn't be respectful to her to do so. All I can say is it was better than anything I could have written in high school. Safe to say, it's better than anything I might be able to write at this moment. 

Lisette's poem was threaded with deep themes of feminism, self-image, depression, hope, and fear. The rhyming and rhythm were placed in immaculate couplets. The content was controversial, not only because two racy words were used, but because it explored the deep feelings a pretten girl experiences as she blossoms into womanhood, softly, without being crass, without cliche. It was nowhere near tediously long (like this post---ha!) and certainly not too short (some kids write three lines and then argue: "But poetry is free! It's ok for it to be short! Yeah, nice try, stop being lazy.)  It read like a song. A better song than Miley Cyrus or Seleena Gomez would ever dream of writing. (Hey, do they even write their own songs?)

For someone reading well below grade level, someone who fails almost every reading test I give her, and for a girl who depicts herself as impossibly shy and innocent, she completely blew me away. Girl, Who ARE you?

Apparently, she had the same effect on the entire class. They sat there with their mouths open. I swear, you could hear a pin drop for about five seconds of shocked silence. Then, thunderous applause. Lisette simply wandered back to her seat, and timidly put her head in her hands, blushing, that long, shiny hair falling over her fingers. I almost---almost felt bad for her.

"Lisette, that was absolutely amazing! Everybody loved it! I had no idea you had such talent for crafting words."  She smiles that miechevious smile again. I return it with a warm grin.

Well, now I know how I can help her improve her reading scores. I know her niche, which buttons to press. I also was reminded the reason why I drag myself out of bed at a dark, ungodly hour every morning. For priceless moments like this.


  1. "If you really want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how badly is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something." —Kurt Vonnegut

  2. Mrs. Chalk, you inspire me. What a beautiful story.

  3. Thank you! I live for students like little Lisette. I try...to inspire...but post #4 is much less inspiring and more of a rant...