Free to Be

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorYesterday I was invited to my son’s preschool class to speak about CAREERS.  Yes, three-year-olds now have Career Day.  Maybe you went to the kind of preschool that requires admission essays and interviews, so you would know what to expect.   I didn’t. I went to a hippy-dippy co-op nursery school in California, unofficially themed “Free to Be…You and Me” after the classic 1972 Marlo Thomas song and TV show.

(Even if you didn’t grow up in the 1970s, which I suspect you didn’t, you have to watch the Free to Be clips on YouTube. There’s a video of Michael Jackson at age 16 singing a song called “When We Grow Up” and the last line is “we don’t have to change at all.” Ironic. )

So my career talk was about being a writing teacher and a poetry editor.   The three-year-olds are learning to write their letters, so they easily grasped what a writing teacher did. A poetry editor was more baffling to them.  The editor part they got. You choose your favorite things and share them with other people. That’s what preschool is all about. Surprisingly, the poetry part was harder.  What is a poem? I tried to break it down. A poem can tell a tiny story. Oh, they said. They know stories. But then why wasn’t a poem just called a story, but tiny? A poem can rhyme. But Dr. Seuss rhymes and Dr. Seuss writes stories. A poem can tell a picture on a page. Cool. We looked at a long, narrow poem called “Worm” that looked like a worm slinking down the paper. The boys liked that one.  The girls said Gross. A poem plays with sounds. A poem has rhythm. A poem is like a dance with words.

The three-year-olds nodded.  They play with sounds. They have rhythm. They make up words and move and bop and make poems with their bodies.

A three-year-old IS a poem.

For preschoolers, there is no separation between poetry and life. Maybe that’s why it was baffling to them that, for me, poetry is a separate thing called a Career.

What about you?  Is poetry your career? Is poetry your life?

Earlier this month, a Saudi Arabian woman won third place on “The Million’s Poet”, the Arab world’s answer to American Idol, for performing her poetry about Islamic extremism. Hissa Hilal is the only woman to make it to the finals, watched by 20 million people, and she writes about topics so controversial she receives death threats. When asked why she takes the risk, she answered “I am not afraid.” In a world where there is no Free To Be You or Me, poetry is not only her life, it’s her life-or-death life.

In honor of National Poetry Month, write in the comments below about what it means when a child, or you, or an Arab woman, says “When I grow up, I want to be a poet.”  It doesn’t have to be about politics or big life stuff. It just has to be pithy and true, like a good poem.

Fireman, hairdresser, poet....

P.S.: Turns out, even my son’s fancy-dancy preschool encourages the kids to be Free To Be. When it came time for the students to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, my son chose “hairdresser.” And everyone was ok with that.

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