It is the first month of school and even after fifteen years of this routine, September still feels like the actual New Year for those of us who teach. I am decidedly a full-on adult at thirty-two and my back to school outfit is a thick coat of fear. It does not escape me, the funny fact that I am asking my high school students to amp up their bravery while I am shaking in my boots. Most of these young people do not consider themselves writers, and conveniently forget they signed up for the creative writing elective in the first place.
The class is called, to the point, Poetry & Activism. I teach creativity, which allows me to facilitate beyond the strictures of tests, and my grades are based on a scale of are you awake and how much do you care? In order to get to the gut of what makes us tick, what turns up our heat, what makes us want to care about each other, about the world, about life outside of the Internet, I know we have to redefine the classroom space. This takes time. Public school is an emotional landmine. It takes a slow heart and a steady patience to gently lead into a space of guided vulnerability.
I’ve been teaching a long time. I want to fast forward the process this round. I am impatient. I want to get to that good spot quick, I don’t always want to do the necessary work. I press the go button early on, asking my students to draw a cross in their notebook and write in each quadrant: safe, not safe, brave, not brave. Dear students, what makes you feel unsafe? I ask them to write a list under each heading. The lists are real, but not yet vulnerable— a vague New York City fear dump — heavy but still ethereal and distanced, untethered to any personal truth: weapons, street harassment, bullying, jerks. No details or stories, nothing to rattle up a specific pain or incriminate them in the act of not belonging.
The next day we write a new prompt on safety: what is a classroom experience where you felt safe, and why?
The most popular response I encounter reads, when a teacher actually, really cares about who I am and my stories. It is going to be a long year, but I am relieved. I really, actually care so I might be in the clear. The students start to respond to my cheesy jokes, a few familiar faces pepper the room. Sometimes I slip out a few accidental curses aimed at injustice when our class enters a heated conversation, and the students have stopped blinking at this. I’m an artist. They get it. Most of the time, they are still not impressed by what I’d like to consider my coolness. They know they’re the masters of new slang, holding the baton of cool and waving it above my head, laughing when I ask, what does in my bag mean? A small tingle is in the air. There are some details in the pages beginning to emerge slowly, lightly, the way color seeps nearly invisibly into the season’s leaves. We are going to get somewhere.
So, what am I actually afraid of? I ask this question to the cursor blinking on the computer screen. Annie Dillard said one must write like an orphan. In my case, I must write as if I am not a teacher. Technically, I am a Writer in Residence now, the fancy title that underscores my identity as an artist. This suggests there is value in my ability to balance the world of education and my own writing, my creatively lived experience beyond the classroom. But we’ve all heard stories that frighten us, and the one I keep in mind is the cautionary tale of a full-time high school teacher with the Department of Education who had been, though couched in less direct terms, fired from teaching high school for publishing an essay about her younger days as a sex worker. Her story follows me down the hallways, taps on my shoulder while I’m writing, remember me, I’m still scary, and I’m still possible.
What else is possible — and powerful — is the secret I shine beneath the desk like a crystal ball. For every student unfazed when I pass them in the hallway with my changing hair styles, three nose rings and visible tattoos, I know there is one who looks at me and immediately sees a glowing around my edges that is called permission. The student can psychically tell I’ve lived a life closer to books than people in certain seasons, that I’ve also been ostracized or felt ostracized and thus, have chosen to wear this strangeness purposefully. The permission is one that extends beyond creativity; it is a permission that signals safety. Your strangeness or pain is safe here, I seem to say to some without saying a word. It is a gift I cannot refuse giving, one I cannot pretend I do not take pride in. I am responsible-wild, a way of being I’ve never put a name to, but the title settles easily.
Wild: I’ve just birthed a book into the world that I am proud of. It pushes boundaries and gets messy and flips the world off but mostly, it shares my own truths, which makes me cringe, peering at the pages through spidered fingers. Safety now means trusting myself implicitly while tossing words blindly into the wind. I’m in an author’s version of the dream where I show up naked and exposed. The whole audience might laugh at me, and what can I do about it but attempt to cover my private parts with an insufficient amount of hands? The book feels profoundly vulnerable, and that is what really makes it wild.
Responsible: I am terrified of my students discovering it.
But what would this student-in-need do with my book in their hands? My crystal ball is blank. Would it affirm or validate? Would it be frightening and too personal? What if a parent discovered it in their backpack? Would I be fired? Would I be whispered a thanks?
When I was fourteen I fell in love for the first time.
Mom and I stopped by the library because the answering machine told us my book had arrived. The local librarian had graciously ordered Flaming Iguanas by Erika Lopez upon request. In it the main character, Tomato Rodriguez, rides around the country on a motorcycle making delicious trouble. Tomato was brash and bold and hot, which I knew because the book contained illustrations to supplement my imagination. Her curly, black hair was piled high on her head, looking on quick glance like Carmen Miranda’s hat of fruit. Hoop earrings, red hot pants, an asymmetrical shirt exposing one shoulder and thigh high boots. The book was printed on brown paper. I couldn’t wait to devour it.
The librarian held the book an inch too-far away from my reach when I stretched for it, calling my mother over. In a hushed voice and a look that said, parent to parent you’ll thank me for this one, she said, “I just want you to know there is talk of homosexuality in this book.” My mother grimaced a tight lipped annoyed smile back at her. Yes, it’s fine, she answered. I felt a secret satisfaction. Mom already knew who I was and what I was reading because I was writing about it uncensored, and publishing it.
Zines, or fanzines, homemade magazines created by hand and photocopied, were popular in the 90s and like many disenchanted youth, became my lifeline. I spent hours cutting and pasting thoughts together in my bedroom, assembling the master copy that buckled thick with glue and tape. Xerox machines were frustrating magic, figuring out which direction to put the paper on the glass so it came out just right, warm as bread and ready to fold, then shuffle to the long armed stapler to clamp its center. I waited through the screeching pain of dial up Internet to trade my own zine for others, and offered subscriptions for the price of two stamps to mail. I was the proud owner of my own P.O. box. The mailwoman marveled at the stacks of colorful envelopes and postcards.
Experimenting was a given. Issue five of my zine was a special format drawn entirely in comics. The story chronicled two young rock n’ roll women who were falling in love. I drew characters that embodied who I was hoping to dream into existence, shaping my own versions of Tomato Rodriguez, swapping the motorcycle for accessories of guitar and bass. On the heels of the issue’s publication, I sat at the kitchen table, watching the cotton candy color rise up over the bleach, the mirror reflecting back a perfect punk crown. My homegrown buzz cut was now pink as a dog’s tongue thanks to Julia, who put her hands in my hair, eyes watering from the dye’s noxious smell. Julia, who laughed at me while I danced silly for her in the kitchen, a plastic bag tied around my head to keep the fumes in. Julia who kissed me, again and again.
Julia played bass in a band like the character I’d drawn. She had short blue hair and we were often mistaken for boys, which we wore like a badge, but we were two girls. We were girlfriends. I screenprinted a comic character on a patch that said fuck gender roles and taught myself a few chords on guitar. We stepped off the page and felt our real skin. It was my first lesson in writing your own existence into being. It was power.
It is now, as an adult, that I can understand how I was upheld in this power, propelled into and cherished in this power. Beyond being seen, I was celebrated. A summer camp friend’s mom sent a $30 check in the mail to subsidize each zines copy cost, a gesture of support that buoyed me to create because of as much as in opposition to. It was the mentors I was gifted that pushed me further into the blessedly weird terrain of self — the patron of my zine, fellow creators on the Internet cheering me on. The artist friends my parents connected me to with one bored summer in the mountains shared their techniques with generosity. I learned to contour draw by the river with Vry, who told me not to worry about making her look ugly, that was art! I cooled my hands on wet clay in Barbara’s workshop to make my own drooping pots with ill-fitting lids. Tam pulled her eyes over my poetry and offered my first edits.
Sometimes it frustrated me. How come I had to get stuck with a good family? If only I came from a broken home, my stories would be so much more interesting. My father grew up loving rock n’ roll in New York City. My mother, a feminist who shared her old Ms. Magazines. Any brokenness I had inside me was accepted and talked through exhaustively. I knew enough to begrudgingly appreciate it, but I didn’t really get it, the rarity of my luck. How privileged I was — for support, for my parents who said more, who said good, who said, I get it. Who urged me to be a bit dangerous, and knew I could be, precisely because at home I was held and loved. I was safe.
It is October in the classroom and we’ve finally hit that moment when it all opens up, what poetry allows us at its best. We are writing poems for Haiti, recently hit by hurricane Matthew, and we’re questioning how to talk about loss. Are we allowed to compare our loss to the loss of another? Can we ethically bring up the fear of losing our family when in conversation with someone who actually has? No, my students say with their feet firmly planted. That is not okay. You must listen. I admire them for this quick assuredness.
It is a special day because we’ve hit that turn in the class where territory that was frightening two months ago is now, in relative terms, safe. We have built this space quietly, when no one was paying attention. Out pour the stories with faces and names assigned, of family members who’ve passed, fathers that never were, fathers that are good fathers but horrifying husbands, foster care, bipolar disorder, past suicidal thoughts, a history of cutting, a battle with cancer. Sometimes you have to step back and allow the talking to happen. Forget the writing or the point of the lesson. Pass the tissue box around. Make sure we can hold and contain the feeling in this room. Save a few minutes at the end to break that blank page and write.
I now have a whole classroom of students who are becoming that one single seeking student. We are all connecting to our weirdness, which might also be named our pain. It turns out our weirdness is also our sameness, which is also our solidarity, which is also our strength. My own bravery bolsters in the winds of their sharing. I see myself as the mentor I had growing up. Responsible-wild. We offer each other permission, surely, but I am tasked with the guide’s staff while leading us into this rocky terrain. I feel the depth of this charge. How do I hold this space with the kind of care that transgresses, while doesn’t over reveal? That pushes and prods, but does not harm?
Perhaps the answer is in the past.
When I was fifteen, a new teacher slipped into my school without fanfare. The name escapes me, but her face sits in my mind like a golden apple: smooth, round and pale. She looked too normal to my young eyes — unstyled, unfunky, a soft-spoken mom. Not aiming to impress, I didn’t hold back in my weekly journals, flooding them with raw expressions of feminist musings, love for my girlfriend, doodles that might make it into the next zine if good enough. She wrote back notes of encouragement in the margins, surprising me. I thought you could only be radical or interesting if you looked the part. Now I was raising an eyebrow, curious. Bless her sharp recognition, her daring heart. After school she pulled me aside and slipped two zines in my hands: Bitch and Gerbil. She uttered, “I might get fired for this — but enjoy.”
Reading later I found out Gerbil’s title was a reclamation of the homophobic rumor about gay men finding pleasure in setting a gerbil to run up their anus. It was perfect. It was the highest expression of trust. It fit right in on my bookshelf — just dangerous enough.
Mere days after my book has launched itself into the world, I open an invite to read as feature poet at a youth poetry open mic. This space is one that values the concept of safety (or safer, or braver, as many of us have come to call these spaces), and also lifts the heavy blanket of censorship, which also means freedom. It is my chance to become the mythical centaur: half artist, half educator, embodying both beings simultaneously, without apology or downplaying one for the other. Last minute, I invite my students to join me, with parental permission, to travel an hour away into the cold-winded night to hear their teacher, and some young poets, read. Eight join me on the journey. Three prove, again, their coolness exceeds my own, getting on the mic to warm the stage. One offers her poem to be read by a friend.
When it is my turn, I am nervous. The book is not a shy one. Its title is vicious, Let It Die Hungry, and it reads like an adult version of my zines. It is full of sex and wanting and artfully crass drawings of girls with bombs on their butt cheeks, a punk mermaid flipping off the viewer, the spread of a woman where the vagina is full frontal, locusts floating out. I cringe, particularly thinking of a prose poem that details a disturbed dream set in a futuristic, depressing scat fetish club. These are not necessarily the experiences you want your 14-year-old kiddos peering in on. There is also exploration of depression, the friendship between women, immigration’s stranglehold on love, eating disorders, manifestos, the prison classroom, the simple act of locating magic in the every day. There are writing prompts that invite the reader into the conversation.
I open the spine and flip past the poems that feel too raw, but I don’t tone down too much, either. I read from my gut. For twenty minutes I have the honor of sharing with my students, who are the perfect audience. They respect my choices and the lines I cross, listening with reverence and love. Your poems are a dragon that swam into my heart, Ms. Caits, a student tells me when it’s all over, and I know I’ve done my job. My own book is a book I would have clung to at fifteen. It would have been another form of permission.
Two days later, we turn off the lights in the classroom and students pop their headphones in. Each sits separately, to find the sweet alone within community. The rainy day lends itself to this precious inwardness. Every single student writes for the entire classroom period. It is magically, and unbelievably, completely silent. We don’t access this space often in school. It feels holy. Each poet deeply with themselves, the sparking connection with self is palpable in the air. At the end of the period, I quietly check in. They are proud of what they wrote, many cannot wait to read, some are bursting, itching to share their words. I recognize this feeling. I can’t lie, they say, I think I wrote some really deep stuff. They say, I’m hype, and I want to come on the next trip, I want to get on a stage with this one!
Good writing and good teaching both turn out most dynamic when there is some risk involved, some vulnerability pulled open, some recognition of a boundary that you’re stepping a whole foot over in search of a greater truth. If one is to be generous and genuine on the page and in the classroom, then surely teaching writing requires writing dangerously and writing requires teaching dangerously. I am not here for grammar. I am here to discuss what it means to tell our stories with bravery — to stretch our own boundaries, and the boundaries of society.
A student lingers at the end of the class as the group files out. I now know why I took this class, he tells me, because it challenges me. I want to try new things now. I want to take risks. I think I get it, I tell him, recognizing myself in his grin. The book flashes in my head and I imagine it in his hands. My heart picks up it’s pace for a moment before settling. I have to want to take risks, too. And we are risking, I tell him, beautifully and together, in order to be just dangerous enough.
CAITS MEISSNER is the author of the hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016), and The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You (Well&Often, 2012), co-written with poet Tishon Woolcock. Her work has won multiple awards and fellowships, and is widely published or forthcoming in many literary journals including The Literary Review, Narrative, Adroit, Public Pool, and The Offing. With a long history in community arts, Caits currently facilities creative writing in prisons, public school, and at CUNY and The New School University.