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My Heart In A Safe Room: Teaching A Special Group Of Students

In the autumn of 2007, when I was teaching at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, I was asked by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Marion County, Florida, to teach a poetry class. Each person in the class had been diagnosed with one or more serious mental illnesses. Yes, I had some initial reservations. After some discussion with my dean and chair, I agreed to teach a class for free. The college allotted them eight meetings, two hours each, during the fall semester. That’s how it began.

On a Wednesday afternoon in fall, in North Central Florida, we met for the first class, in Room 202 upstairs near my office. It was a glorious fall day, the sun slanting in the windows. The group filed in, most on time or early, 13 in the room, all adults, ranging in age from 25 to 70, an equal number of men and women. I’d been teaching many years by then. The faces turned up to me were special that day. Eager. Open. Promising.

I began with an overview of poetry on powerpoint, handouts with terms and examples, and then I read to them for a long while. I sat on a tall stool. The room hushed around me. I chose some of my favorite poems– Hopkins, Frost, Dickinson and then a few contemporary poems. Poetry is much like music–it has rhythms and melodies of language and tempo. Read aloud, a good listener learns plenty about what poetry is just from hearing well-crafted poems. One of the poems I shared was a poem called After Years by Nebraska poet Ted Kooser. It began, “Today, from a distance, I saw you…”

After Years

Today, from a distance, I saw you

walking away, and without a sound

the glittering face of a glacier

slid into the sea. An ancient oak

fell in the Cumberlands, holding only

a handful of leaves, and an old woman

scattering corn to her chickens looked up

for an instant. At the other side

of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times

the size of our own sun exploded

and vanished, leaving a small green spot

on the astronomer’s retina

as he stood on the great open dome

of my heart with no one to tell.

by Ted Kooser

When I was done reading, the group remained silent, a good response to art. The poem had gotten to them. I saw it.

And so after our break of tea and cookies, I wrote that line on the white board and used it as a prompt: “Today, from a distance…” Use this as your first line into your poem, I told them. Start there. Picture a specific time and place. Let the poem write itself like a memory you are sharing with a friend.

Then I left them to it.

Later, when all had put down their pens and pencils, I asked if anyone would care to share their poem or a few lines from it, and to my surprise, every single student had completed a poem. One wrote “Today from a distance I saw that train rumbling into the distance in Pittsburgh, my four-year-old legs too small to find my daddy in his soldier’s uniform in that bustling crowd…closing the distance between us…”

Another, a young man, wrote “Today, I saw you from strolling the streets of Vienna like Handel, who was misunderstood as well, your clothes disheveled and your house in disarray. But your mind in perfect order.” A man named Arnie, who kept his head down most of the time, lifted it for a while and read to us. The last line of his first poem was “I closed my heart in a safe room, sealing me off, permanently.”

We all were struck by that line and image as if by a blow. The line seemed to speak to all, connoting loneliness and alienation. I had to gather my breath. I scanned the faces in the room, at these students granted to me for a while, and I knew they were extraordinary people. Every class thereafter was a marvel like that, with moments of such beauty and insight, such emotional courage, such use of language, that I was truly astonished at their gifts.

About the fourth class I proposed the idea of publishing their poems in a book. We titled the book My Heart in a Safe Room after the line from Arnie’s poem on the first day of class because it had become our credo, our mantra. It had become who our group was, all of hearts in a safe room expressing our creativity, sharing our lives and memories in language, in words. Maybe we are all looking for that room.

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