What Do I Believe?

When I approach the world, when I must make decisions and when I interact with others, I am always concerned with justice and equity. My favorite words are balance, moderation and fairness. I do not believe in black and white; extremism is dangerous in all cases. At a base level, this is the principle I use as my ethical foundation. I have come to understand the importance of balance – of always finding a middle ground – from my experiences abroad, my immersion in poetry and philosophy and my understanding of art.

One of the first times I encountered a stark contrast of lifestyles – a true black versus white experience – was when I studied abroad in China. Chinese culture, I learned, is collectivist. Individualism is a western ideal that the Chinese regard as selfish and inefficient. I spoke to journalism students who said their drive to become reporters stemmed from their drive to represent their country kindly and proudly. In their eyes, the journalist does not act as a government watchdog, but as a pedestal for which to tout the accomplishments of China.

From career choices to family relations to the dinner table, it is crucial for the people of China to share and to build a foundation with individuals acting together as one unit rather than each individual working alone to build her own tall tower.

In an interview for my summer internship last year, the president of the company for which I was interviewing told me he hated China because no one there thinks for himself.

I was shocked. In China, I saw cooperation, care, brotherhood and family everywhere. The president of this company, on the other hand, saw sheep trotting mindlessly along as the government controls them from afar.

German philosopher Hegel theorized that the development of one’s moral conscience comes from encountering what is “other.” He argues that when one confronts something unfamiliar – be it a strange piece of art, a confusing poem or even a person of another race – she has the opportunity to learn from it, to come to terms with it and absorb it as a part of her own understanding of the world. From this emerges a third self: a new consciousness more aware than the last. Hegel says that this process can continue all throughout life, with the emergence of many “third selves.” I found a third self when I experienced Chinese culture: a self that wished for a blend of two cultures.

When I encountered collectivist culture in China, I understood it as fairness. I found it refreshing compared to the cutthroat, competitive culture in America.

However, I also fear for a population so concerned with supporting its government that it forgoes its own rights and allows injustices to occur with no further thought.

American culture and Chinese culture are two extremes. Stark individualism is not effective because it teaches us to hurt one another for the benefit of our own success. Stark collectivism is not effective because it teaches us to abandon our own passions and drives for the good of protecting the “establishment.” An ideal society exists somewhere between these two points. It exists with a compromise between individual happiness and the well being of others. It exists with sacrifice, with some level of discomfort, but never so much that we lose our own selves in the process. In my own actions, I always search for my own ideal: a compromise.

The Wick Poetry Center Experience

This is a reflection of my first semester interning at the Wick Poetry Center in Kent, Ohio. I have become a better teacher and a better listener. I’ve loved every minute of it.

I promised myself for my entire life that I would never become a teacher. My mother was a teacher, and I watched her put in hours of work with little reward. I watched her plan lessons, grade papers, reach out to troubled students, cry, laugh, cry some more. She tried relentlessly to sway her students, to inspire them and teach them to love English as much as she did. Ultimately, the work she did in the classroom never mattered. The administration, the school board, and the county council didn’t care if her students grew to love Shakespeare or cried at the end of Of Mice and Men, they cared about standardized tests and GPAs.

Interning at the Wick Poetry Center has changed my perception about teaching entirely. I’ve learned about opportunities to teach outside the classroom. I’ve learned how to approach teaching as an act of kindness and even activism rather than a mechanical process intended to produce robots with high test scores.

My first teaching assignment this semester was at Walls Elementary teaching River Stanzas. I was nervous to teach as a part of River Stanzas because I knew nothing about the Cuyahoga. I am originally from Maryland, and have no fond memories or experiences around the Crooked River. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to answer questions or help the students connect to the poems we were asking them to write. It quickly became clear to me that the lessons didn’t have to be about any river in particular. I remember Ali, a student from a different country, talking about the river he grew up with. He wanted to write about this river in the middle of a desert that winds like a snake. He ended up writing many beautiful poems with tangible, powerful images that anyone could easily relate to.

This was also my first time working with this age group (fourth graders). I was blown away by their observations, their vocabulary, and the questions they asked in their poetry. They were childlike in their joy and confidence and innocence, but they were wise beyond their years in their curiosity and their freedom with language. Poetry was an act of play to them. They didn’t overthink their words like many adults do. They wrote freely and naturally, and the work they produced was beautiful. I truly had fun teaching them lessons, watching them write on their own, and reading their final poems.

I wish poetry lessons of this sort could be more heavily incorporated into classrooms. The students had natural talent and were always so excited to write. I remember one student asking, “Why can’t we have poetry lessons everyday?” It was an incredible experience to bring River Stanzas into the classroom, but once we leave, we can only hope that the students continue to love and appreciate poetry as they grow.

My other assignment was with the student organization More Than a Body. More Than a Body is a collective of young women—many of whom are survivors of sexual assault or other traumas—supporting each other and reclaiming their bodies and their voices. I got to lead four poetry workshops with these women and attend a public reading where all the participants shared their work.

I didn’t know what to expect from the first workshop. I didn’t know how much the group members would trust me. I was afraid of waltzing in and forcing these women to share their life stories with me and the other strangers in the room. I was even more afraid of asking them to tell said stories through poetry. I didn’t want to prepare lessons that might trigger horrible memories or traumas. I didn’t want to overwhelm the group by launching it head first into a form of self-expression that calls for extreme vulnerability.

Luckily, I had no reason to be afraid of anything. The members embraced me with open arms. Everyone was so excited to use poetry as a form of healing. Even those who admitted to having bad experience with poetry in the past were excited to try again. The first exercise—a Where I’m From poem, based on the work of George Ella Lyon—generated deeply personal pieces about relationships with mothers, beautiful childhood memories, and even explorations of traumatic experiences.

As we continued, I delved deeper into more emotional poetry that allowed the group to write more passionately and experiment more heavily with language. I was constantly blown away by each woman’s ability to write confidently and rebelliously. I am reminded or a particular poet who wrote Alternate Universe in which I Never Learned the Meaning of the Word Too, after Olivia Gatwood’s Alternate Universe in which I Am Unfazed By the Men Who Do Not Love Me. The poet wrote subversively about the power of language, about how simple words hold such weight over us. The poet writes: “She does not lie awake and wonder if she is too much or too little. She does not stop to try and figure out which is worse.”

In another lesson, when the poets were asked to write poetry about the women who raised them, I heard beautiful odes to mothers and grandmothers. They wrote passionate thank you letters and apologies. When it came time to share, more than a few tears were shed. One poet in particular could only read a few lines of her poem before becoming too choked up to continue. I told her after how much I admired her bravery for writing honestly and sharing with the rest of the group. I told her that her poem was important, and she should keep writing it until it’s finished.

I am honored to have met these women. I am honored to have led these workshops and heard their stories. Each one of them wrote loudly and proudly with strength, confidence, and grace. Poetry is not what gave them their strength, but it became a vehicle through which to show it.

Teaching this workshop showed me the healing power of poetry. These women were fighting health problems, struggling with classes, and battling traumas, and they still came every week to support one another and find their own solace in poetry.

When one poet told me she never liked poetry lessons in high school, but she loved coming to this workshop, I finally realized why my mother was so slow to give up teaching. We don’t teach because we want to be rewarded in money or admiration, we teach because we want to help—to make a difference. I love poetry, and I always have. Knowing that the work I did, the lessons I taught, changed one person’s perception of poetry made my heart glow. I knew now that this person had another tool in her belt. When she feels small or stuck, she can use paper and pencil to help herself feel big. She can find her voice and her power by reading and writing fearlessly. I only hope I can continue to teach and to show others the truth about poetry.