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Poet, Pragmatist
When I picked Skylar up from school on Monday, she excitedly reported that she had won the district-wide poetry contest for her grade level. This isn't the first time. But it meant a lot more this time, given the dynamics of middle school.

You see, even though Skylar has done an amazing job of keeping her distance from the so-called "popular girls" while also fending off the jealousy of students in the gifted program -- she was only admitted this year, but is at the top of her class -- she still needs positive affirmation in her educational environment. And winning an award is one way to do it.

Yes, her fellow aspiring poets may resent her, but the majority of her schoolmates know that they aren't about to win a poetry contest and have respect for those who can. Especially the girls, who are so hard to impress at this age.

The best part was that Skylar was late for school that morning and missed the announcement, which meant that other students in her first-period class gave her the news. The impulse to congratulate is apparently stronger when one gets to be the bearer of good tidings.

Last year Skylar wrote some great poems for someone her age, but didn't win something for the first time since she started elementary school. The reason, as I surmised at the time, was partially that her writing had outgrown the context in which it was being evaluated and partially that her subject matter was too remote for the well-off Foothills of Tucson:
San Francisco

A crumpled mailbox stands
on a sunny Oakland street,
while the smoggy windows of a subway
block out views of the station,
ever in a hurry,
away from spray-painted fences
ripped by yowling Rotweilers,
away to the arches of the sunset,
away to all the alley cats slinking,
and skyscrapers tearing blue cotton,
away from the crumpled mailbox
on a sunny Oakland street.
Her poetry unit this year wasn't very long and happened when she was preoccupied and recovering from an illness. She did all her serious writing in a single evening, coming up with two poems she was happy with. The first, inspired by visiting my mother in the hospital, was my favorite and hers:

The Hospital

A crinkled mattress sighs
In the small hospital room
Over patients

They came and went
Some dying
Under the plastic sheets
Cheap as dime store bubblegum

Others escaped
The fluorescent tubes
To watch the sun
Bleach rooftops

And shove despair
Into the shadows,
Slinking away like a
Stray animal

Back to the hospital,
Pale as a scar,
The room
Where light
Might as well
Be darkness
Remembering her experience the previous year, however, she chose to submit the other poem she composed that evening, because it was about school:
My Walk Into School

My coat feels itchy
Clinging to me
An extra skin
I seize it

To protect me
From the rain splattering the pavement

I shuffle past
The cars
Stained with the shivering rain
Dull as the frowning sky

I shuffle down the crosswalk
dappled with wet freckles

Students walk
In front of the school
Staring at me
In my big, black coat

Their eyes drive me
Into a mental fishbowl
On display

The rain shrivels
When it bounces off my coat
But the stares seep right through
And dampen my spirits

I would rather blunder
Through a hurricane
Than have to make it
Past this crowd
Personally, I prefer the school poem she wrote last year, which has a more complicated nesting of tropes:

The swift girls and boys glide,
as an assortment of varied clichés,
while a lone drop of rain plops
in an ocean far away,
away from the whispering shore.
The ocean water from far away
slinks through a tap
at a department store,
where pencils and erasers are sorted
by their own pleasures,
a fraction of apples and oranges,
never knowing what lies
on the other side.
But I understand why the poem she wrote about her big, black coat won the district-wide award, even though I wish she could stretch herself without being punished. Thankfully, she feels the same way. Given the boost in confidence that winning this year provided, however, her pragmatic approach to the contest was clearly the correct one.

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9 comments or Leave a comment
masoo From: masoo Date: April 27th, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've told the story before of a guy in our high school who was the personification of Cool. I was anything but cool, myself, and so I never approached him ... we ran in different circles. Almost 40 years later, we got together and had a great time. He confessed that he always wanted to hang with us in high school, but we were all trapped in our cliques.

Not all popular girls are named "Heather."
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: May 12th, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
(Apologies for the belated reply. It has been a very busy few weeks.)

I told Skylar this story. She was interested to hear that the dynamics that have been preoccupying her analytic mind translate into male society.
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: April 27th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
and probably she will learn not to take "critique" too much to heart ... nothing like being able to manipulate it to make you lose respect for it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: May 12th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
(Apologies for the belated reply. It has been a very busy few weeks.)

I hope that's true in a positive sense -- as in, giving her a measure of protection -- and not in a negative one -- as in, feeling cynical about the whole process of artistic judgment.
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: May 12th, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
IMO a lot of cynicism about "artistic judgement" is a good thing. Once you learn how to manipulate the critics you realise their opinions (whether favourable or un-) must but shut out of your heart. There is no other way to go on creating, because the spite heaped on creative people by the noncreative is caustic and deadly.
judo100 From: judo100 Date: April 27th, 2011 08:08 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Very nice poetry for a youngster. I'm glad she won a prize and feels good about herself. Tell her that if she wants to grow as a artist, though, she should write all the time (not just one evening) and completely ignore the prizes. If she happens to win one anyawy, fine, but if she's writing to win the prizes, she'll never hear her own voice. (And maybe she already knows that. I hope so.)
la_sauvage From: la_sauvage Date: April 27th, 2011 11:05 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
impressive! congrats to her :)
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: April 28th, 2011 02:24 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Congrats to Skylar! I had a similar hit-or-miss experience with writing contests when I was about her age, but did reasonably well in early elementary school. Eventually I gave up on them entirely for a while and just wrote. I only started submitting again recently and again it's been hit-or-miss. You just never know who's reading you. But I'm really happy she had such a great experience today. The bit about others having to tell her she won--and delighting to do so--is fantastic. Please give her my congratulations!
alsoname From: alsoname Date: May 6th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Hey, happy birthday!
9 comments or Leave a comment