Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Five Poems to Soothe Kids' Toxic Stress

Grandpa was really sick now, thin like a skeleton. The last thing I remember him saying was, "Did you bring the little dog?" We hadn't brought Kip because Grandpa was in a hospice, but the pain-killers made him think he saw the chihuahua at the foot of the bed.  Kip had been a faithful friend stationed at the foot of his bed the previous five years at home when Grandpa was bedridden due to cancer.

Technically, Grandpa wasn't our 'real' grandfather. He was our grandmother's second husband. But to me, my sister, and all the many cousins, he was the best grandpa in the whole world. Everyone says that, even almost fifty years later. He loved children. He loved us. He spent time talking to us, taking us on walks, teaching us to play the card game 'Casino.' And card tricks, too. All the photos with him showed everyone smiling. He was like that.

I recall watching baseball on television with him. He was a San Francisco Giants' fan. I realized last year that the reason I knew so much about the Giants was because I watched the World Series (1963) with him (the last baseball season Grandpa was at home), before he passed away the following spring. His going left a dark hole in the family.

Literature can ease the stress of a child's serious loss, so the effect doesn't advance to toxic, chronic stress. Literature draws the isolating pain out in the open. We aren't alone in our experiences; universal themes speak to our human condition, too. For me, I somehow found  "The Rainy Day," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, probably in my parochial school library. It soothed my heartbroken, adolescent soul with lines like "Behind the clouds is the sun still shining" and "Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary."  Henry knew how I felt. http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/longfellow/12207 


Childhood can be filled with fears, even terrors, real and imagined. We don't need to describe the traumas kids suffer. Maya Angelou's "Life Doesn't Frighten Me," infers a child's nightmares and possible real terrors;  the voice in the poem stands up to her fears. A group discussion of a poem allows a student to absorb the comfort at her own pace and need; she can share her fear or not. But the universal experience of fear is acknowledged. http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/life_mayaangelou.htm

Kids can be demeaned, betrayed, bullied. How can a kid handle that? Students, usually middle-schoolers, respond with shock at the opening lines of
                                            I'm nobody! Who are you?
                                            Are you nobody, too?


Someone else knows how it feels? I'm not the only one going through this? When you're born into the caste of the rejects--what's a kid to do? Like Emily Dickinson suggests, reject the insult--its the conformists who are to be ridiculed.  To read how the totally unique Emily suggests we do this, go to this link and see all the poem. http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/448/

Every year I have taught in Southern California, I have students that have had traumatic losses due to violence close to them. Even what we consider to be a cliche can comfort them. Famous sayings and poems aren't famous to kids--its new material.  The well known saying from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" is still valid:
                      
                                           I hold it true, whate'er befall;
                                           I feel it, when I sorrow most;
                                           'Tis better to have loved and lost
                                           Than never to have loved at all.
For the rest of the poem, 
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174603. I always liked the reference to not wanting to be a 'linnet' (caged bird) that was never free to experience 'the summer wood.' Life has joys and sorrows, and we fly to the first despite the eventual descent into the second. 

Our people, our family can uphold us.  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177021 Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son" speaks a mom's heart. Life's exertion, exhaustion, and unexpected reversals require relentless effort to overcome, often too much for the young  person by himself. Whether its a mother to son, grandpa to granddaughter, teacher to student---there are grown-ups reaching out to you. Someone cares. We can navigate you, one step at a time, past the hidden trip-ups. We know where they are-- we've tripped over a few--but let's get up and keep on climbing.

The comfort from the community;  poets from even two hundred years ago can be a member of that community. A poem can embrace the sad, frightened, lonely soul of a child.

I thought of Grandpa when his Giants won the Series last year. I couldn't share it with him, except in my heart. That's a comforting thought. I learned it from poetry.












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