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Chalk Talk by Michele Turner Bernhard: The poetry of juxtaposition and contemplation

Michele Bernhard

Michele Bernhard KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

“The practice of contemplation is active engagement with a truth, an issue, a claim, a fact, a word.” (Swami Peeth, India 1995).

The world seems to be moving faster with less opportunity for stillness and contemplation, two essentials for being aware of one’s self. In this contemporary education age of testing and data collection, our students have become experts at the analysis of the ideas of others, but it is in creativity and collaboration that we can find our own unique opinions and true self.

In this digital age where many students rapidly and furtively text others during class instead of being present with the people in the room, writing poetry becomes a way to quiet the chaos and refocus on one’s inner thoughts. The real uncertainty and drama of coming of age that all teenagers face, finds empathy in poetry and a powerful tool for transformation.

This semester, my ninth-grade students used the poem “On the Subway” by Sharon Olds, to study issues of stereotyping and prejudgment that we all have rattling around in our heads.

Upon our first reading of the poem aloud, many students argued that it is a racist poem because of the way the older white woman is describing the black teenager sitting across from her on the subway car. The poem begins like this:

The boy and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
rapidly moving through darkness ….

“On The Subway” first appeared in The Nation and The Gold Cell (A.A.Knopf)

Before our second, third, and fourth readings of the poem, I introduced the terms: juxtaposition, diction and allusion to the class. Our discussion was lively!

We talked about the juxtaposition of two seemingly different people on a subway, and where we find juxtapositions in our daily lives. Students offered up great ideas for where people of different walks of life encounter each other: the cafeteria, the checkout line at the grocery store, downtown Northampton, and at the mall.

We unpacked the allusions to the history of slavery in our country and the idea of white privilege; how the color of our skin can give us an unfair and undesired advantage in society.

We talked about acknowledging our inner thoughts, even when we are not proud of them; stereotypes we might harbor about homeless people, or socio-economic class.

Then we wrote our own poems using the idea of juxtaposition of two characters.

One of my students who often struggles to keep up with school wrote this poem and shared it with the class. Here, with his permission, is Everett Cuffee’s poem:

He has both parents
I have one I barely get to see
He has the new Jordans
I have the old Nikes
He has family game night
I have a lonely pile of homework
He has parents who have time for him
I have five minutes in the morning
His father sleeps in a bed
My dad sleeps under six feet of dirt and won’t ever wake up
He has someone to help him with homework
I have to find someone who has time to help me
He goes on family trips
I go to teacher meeting for misbehaving
He has someone to help him with his problems
I have to find a way to deal with my problems on my own
He has parents to come home to
I have a list of chores that have to be done by the end of the day
He gets rides to go to friends’ houses
I have to find a way to walk there or bum a ride
He goes out to a restaurant with his family
I have to cook dinner for myself and my sister while my mom works
He goes to bed with a kiss on the forehead
I go to bed with nothing but my thoughts until I get tired.

We were all blown away by the precise images and steady self-knowledge he exposed. There was silence and then applause, even hugs among the most unlikely of classmates. I sent the poem to his other teachers and to our administrators, and he was showered with praise. He is a newly found poet.

Analyzing Sharon Olds’ poem, pulling it apart with our thinking mind, was a useful exercise that will serve students well on the MCAS. They will cite text and focus on diction where meaning is lodged, but it is in the quiet contemplation of the text in relation to one’s unique world experiences, where transformation is created.

“When we are in resonance with true stillness, the ups and downs of daily life lose their immensity. We settle into the eye of the storm whose whirlwinds are the circumstances of our lives.” (Swami Peeth, India 1995).

Michele Turner Bernhard is an English teacher at Northampton High School and a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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