T&W Magazine editorial board selected Paola Capó-García’s “Making Sense of It All: High School Poetry in the Age of Zoom” as the 2021 Bechtel Prize winner. This year, the prize was awarded for an innovative virtual creative writing project.
The Bechtel prize is named for Louise Seaman Bechtel, who was an editor, author, collector of children’s books, and teacher. She was the first person to head a juvenile book department at an American publishing house. As such, she took children’s literature seriously, helped establish the field, and was a tireless advocate for the importance of literature in kids’ lives.
My happy place is the classroom. But more specifically, my happy place is when a student nods with their whole body, when they get that wild look in their eyes like everything just clicked, when they finally unlock the meaning of a poem. That’s the feeling I seek to replicate day in and day out. As I head into my tenth year as a teacher, I feel more grounded than ever in my mission to incorporate contemporary poetry into high school curricula. Poetry is so often neglected at the high school level, deemed too difficult, too precious, or too esoteric to tackle. And when it is taught, it’s typically filtered through dead white men. But teaching Whitman and Frost does not fit into my politics as a teacher and human, and it certainly does not fit the narrative of the students my school serves. I’m not interested in widening the gap between them and poetry, between them and knowledge. My goal, now and always, has been to make poetry accessible, exciting, and useful to young people. To teach them that the way they speak and live is already poetic. To help them manage the messiness of 21st century youth with 21st century language. And in this extra-messy age of Covid and Zoom and rightful apathy, poetry felt like the perfect way to make sense of it all.
To help students adjust to distance learning, my school decided to transition to a quarter model. Instead of stringing students along for a whole semester while they balanced three to four online classes simultaneously, we cut down the class load and had students focus on only one class every eight weeks. When rethinking my class, I decided I didn’t want to try to reproduce the classroom experience. The reality is that nothing can beat being next to one another, workshopping each other’s poems, feeding off each other’s wacky energies, debating with our whole bodies, dancing along to each other’s playlists, being silent together. There’s no sense in reproducing that joy. But what we can do is create a new kind of joy, a joy that is quieter—not as tangible—but more focused. I wanted students to feel surprised by the content, and to feel like the virtual experience was tailored to them, their needs, and these anxiety-producing times. So I did away with my usual senior English class (a mix of creative and academic writing styles) and designed an eight-week, immersive poetry-themed course. By switching to this focused model I could envelop students in the words of others and make them feel like poets without losing steam or having to share their attention spans with other classes. Through poetry, students could meaningfully address and process the particular chaos of 2020, while also processing the particular chaos of being a teenager.
But a big obstacle we’ve all faced with distance learning is that students have (logically) shut down. They miss the physical experience of school culture, feel overly exposed by the camera, and, in some cases, don’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts in front of family members. This has created a dissonance with their academic identities. Students who were once fiercely vocal are now too scared to speak up. But fear and poetry do not mix, so my new challenge was to help quell those anxieties and create a safe and brave space for students to once again be bold enough to share their private selves. In order to help them through this newfound shyness—without forcing them to overshare with the class—I moved away from the conventional whole-class workshop model and instead opted for scheduled one-on-ones and office hours with each student so that I would be their personal reader and workshopper throughout the writing process. While we lost the benefits of multiple perspectives, doing this allowed students to still have a creative and emotional outlet while retaining some sense of privacy. This also fostered a dynamic relationship between us—a constant back and forth of brainstorming and suggestions—that allowed me to follow their growth more closely and allowed them to open up without fear of judgment.
But we didn’t just dive into writing on the first day. I reject the adage that to be a good writer you must write a lot. I believe that to be a good writer you must read a lot. So, we read. We read in order to broaden our perspectives and vocabularies, and we read to see how other poets manifested their own messy identities. We read Natalie Diaz’s “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” and dissected its use of allegory to explore Indigenous genocide. We read Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” and discussed capitalism and complacency. We read Danez Smith’s “my president” and debated what our elected leaders should embody. We read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for two weeks and had raw conversations about race and historical trauma, while also analyzing Rankine’s use of the “you,” hybridity, and contemporary art. Once we established a language of poetry (and vulnerability) and soaked in other writers’ words, forms, and experiments, we transitioned to typing. But what about? Between a raging pandemic, civil rights unrest, controversial U.S. election, and graduation on the horizon, the students needed a space to explore the enormity of their feelings. To address this, I designed the writing prompts around the concept of loss. The world we’re living in is punctuated by overwhelming loss, and it must be confronted and articulated in cathartic ways.
To engage with this concept, we read James Tate’s “The Lost Pilot” and Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact.” While Tate’s elegy addresses the loss of a father who remains a stranger to the speaker, Gay’s poem tenderly addresses a very public stranger, Eric Garner. We discussed what it means to mourn a stranger, and what it means to lyrically humanize someone who was dehumanized to the point of death. To build off of the momentum of these poems, I tasked the students with writing their own elegies about someone or something they’ve lost. I wanted the students to have the freedom to engage with any sense of loss, whether that’s a person, object, or feeling. This prompt required students to lean into their vulnerability, and the results blew me away. Some students wrote about family members, others about pets, and others about the friendships and wonder and agency they’ve lost along the way. I value the elegy as a poetic form for teenagers because it invites healing; it’s a way to give grief a name and exit strategy. I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal. When I read these two student poems below, I feel that release.
Lost and Found
by Bryah Odom
I can only guess how your lips would taste.
Or how your hands would feel
cradled around my waist, as we stood
complacent in September rain.
Just like you had promised.
But I am certain—that the remnants of us
linger in the corner of my mind
baptized in dust,
buried in cobwebs.
Next to: slivers of hope
and pairs of earrings.
Along with: my sanity
and misplaced keys.
Underneath it all
my memories of you.
by Chester Ramos
You never walk in the hallway anymore.
You stopped playing solitaire
with the whipping and whooshing of your poverty-stricken hands on the deck of cards.
Your face has softened to mush,
melted like the candles you kept beside the Virgin Mary.
My forehead can no longer touch
the dorsum of your hand.
Your plump lips lost their prayer,
now we must say the prayer.
Our trees still go up
but have lost their glow.
The clock strikes 12 on the 1st
but we have stopped jumping.
You have brought us here
and brought us these traditions.
Now, I have brought them to their grave.
Should I leave them there?
While I firmly believe Bryah and Chester are instinctively good writers, I also believe that reading Tate and Gay had a profound effect on their sensibilities. I’m struck by Bryah’s small details and maneuvering of enjambment, and by the sustained use of second person in Chester’s beautiful piece, qualities I’m able to connect back to Tate and Gay. But I’m mostly struck by their quiet confidence and resilience in the face of loss.
After exploring the elegy, I wanted students to approach loss from a different angle. I wanted them to connect with their past selves, so we read fellow San Diegan David Tomas Martinez’s “Found Fragment on Ambition” and Ada Limón’s “How To Triumph Like a Girl.” The students particularly connected with Martinez’s poem because it spoke to their own shifting identities and the violence of profiling. As a response, I asked the students to write a poem to their younger selves. High school seniors instinctively reflect on their past selves. Being on the cusp of adulthood means reconciling the portions of yourself that haven’t grown up yet. To be a senior in high school is to live on that cusp and to constantly look back and beyond. This poem gave them the opportunity to reflect on who they used to be and to create a record of who they currently are. What they produced was so powerful. Students truthfully approached themselves and confronted the things that weighed their memories down. In the two poems below, we bear witness to two empowered young women of color pleading with their childhood selves to protect and preserve their racial and ethnic identities.
For Bryah, this poem required extra time to conceive, so she spent weeks crafting it because she wanted to do her young self and her message justice. For me, this served as an important reminder to give students time and space to process their experiences. We can’t rush this kind of power.
The Ancestor’s Recipe
by Bryah Odom
When Lauryn said,
“Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem,”
I believed her.
But perhaps if my name was Lauren
and my hair was blonde
others would believe me too.
But little black girl,
your name is Bryah.
And your hair coils tightly like a snake around its prey.
And like a sunflower it blossoms toward the sun.
And you rock hoops as big as the rings around Saturn
and your skin
enters the room before you do.
See there will be times
when that cocoa-colored skin feels like a trenchcoat of burden
and their words will pierce like 1,000 cuts of a sword.
But let their words pass,
and love yourself the way the sun loves your melanin.
As I lay my edges down to sleep I pray the lord my soul to keep
breathing, to keep
pushing, to keep
my fro held high.
So when Lauryn says,
“Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem,”
even if they don’t,
I’ll believe her.
by Argelia Contreras
little beba, you would be so disappointed.
we abandon our culture along with our name so that society would deem us normal.
we continue to regret eating until we are full.
we exercise to feel the satisfaction of not weighing over 100.
we lost our confidence after our face betrayed us.
we never dance in public, mom says it’s too embarrassing.
we allow cowardly men to define us.
we no longer know how to be alone.
we crave the control of our life yet we do nothing about it.
little beba, you would be so disappointed.
you loved so hard you lost yourself.
I realized poetry had worked its magic when toward the end of the quarter a few of the students started emailing me poems that they had written in their personal time. This is what I wanted all along, for poetry to become their tool, their antidote for the times. And here I was, once again floored by their maturity, grace, and resilience. Floored by their ability to find healthy ways to cope with uncertainty.
Soon enough I’ll go back to teaching a longer, more comprehensive English class in person, with all its MLA research essays and timed reading responses, etc. I love that version of my class too, but being able to zoom into poetry during a year that felt designed to destroy so many feels like a small triumph. I’ll always remember the Bryah Odoms and Chester Ramoses. I’ll think of the beauty of student Keana Wolcott’s “Ocean Child,” a poem wading in the waters of her youth. “You stopped caring. / You couldn’t turn the sound of waves up high enough. / You were tired of fixing the items
on your shelf. / You snapped out of sirena’s spell, opening your eyes to the shipwreck she tried to pull you away from.” I’ll think of Jeysson Contreras, who never wanted to be a poet but couldn’t help it. “To the boy from yesterday / I’m sorry you still blank out when asked to describe yourself / And I’m sorry you go with the flow because you’re too scared to push against the current.”
Poetry has a way of forcing one into recognition, or transformation, or both if we’re lucky. This is why I love teaching it; I get to witness that cosmic moment when a student becomes wholly themselves. And to teach poetry in high school feels like an even bigger miracle. It requires one to take an often-untrusting 17 year old by the hand and escort them toward their own self discovery and radicalization. I don’t know a better feeling than that.
Paola Capó-García is a poet and educator from San Juan, PR. She is the author of CLAP FOR ME THAT’S NOT ME (Rescue Press, 2018), selected by D.A. Powell as the winner of Rescue Press’ 2017 Black Box Poetry Prize. She earned a BS in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University, an MA in English from UC Davis, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UC San Diego. Her poems have appeared in The Volta, Latino Book Review, jubilat, Poetry Society of America, Academy of American Poets, and others. She currently lives in San Diego, CA, where she teaches 12th grade English Literature & Composition.