Letters for Change

Writing is at its essence communication. However, unlike much communication, writing can cross barriers of time and space and society. Most of us will never sit down for a chat with the president, but we can send him a letter, which will be read (at least by someone), and added to the tally of opinions, and if it escapes the recycling bin that letter might still be read in 100 years. This is powerful stuff. It can be a little heady, especially when people just realize it. I can express my opinions to people who can do something about them. I can make my voice heard.

I like to cultivate this in my students. They have beautiful, passionate opinions about the world, and learning that they can communicate them feels like a counterpoint to potential apathy. Weighing in with opinions is the essential act of democracy, after all. Speaking up is also a way to keep compassion from turning into cynicism.

I ask my students, “What would you like to see change in the world? What do you love? What makes you angry? What do you think could be done better?” We talk about what happens when you send a letter to government representatives and newspapers and companies. We talk about how opinions get tallied. We talk about various children’s letters that have had impacts, from the girl in British Columbia whose letter helped save some woods she loved, to the boy who was instrumental in the dolphin-safe tuna campaign. I tell them about how I wrote to the ice cream store when I was nine, asking them to install a water fountain (they put out a water jug), and how I wrote to Hanna Anderson telling them to show girls running and playing in their catalog instead of standing around being cute (they apologized profusely and changed their photos for a year or two).

Then I set the kids loose. I don’t push my ideas of what should change on them (I can write my own letters), though I sometimes help them focus on specifics. For instance, a number of children were interested in writing about protecting forests and animals this year, which is too general for anyone to do anything about, so I told them about a particular old growth timber sale that has been in the news lately. Our poor commissioner of public lands got his desk flooded. Children wrote about everything from ending war to changing Smarties candy to make it unsnortable.

When they know what they want to write about, I help them figure out who the letter should go to: the person who can make the changes they want to see made. A company? The governor? Their sister? If it is something we can all do, we send it to the newspaper. If we can’t figure it out, we usually just send it to the president.

We practice addressing envelopes neatly. Sometimes this is the first physical letter my students have ever sent. Then we put them in the mailbox and hope for a reply.

I have done this project for several years now, and every year I am struck by the deep compassion and passion these young people have for the world. Anyone who doubts that young people care about anything besides themselves should read these letters. Better yet, they should answer to the challenges set in them. Our world would be a better place.

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Ze is awesome: adventures with gender-neutral pronouns

English is missing a word. (Well, probably many words.) However, this is a really useful word: it’s a gender-neutral singular pronoun for people.

In the good-old-boy days, they just said “he” but that’s not cool anymore, nor should it be.

“It” is gender-neutral, but also implies a lack of humanity.

“He or she” is correct but oh-so-stiff.

“S/he” is unpronouncable.

“They” tends to be my go-to, but is technically incorrect, since “they” implies more than one.

Personally, I’d love to see us expand use of the word “it” so that it didn’t imply an object, so that the aliveness and dignity of its subjects came through clear, whether they were dogs, mountains, children, or silverware. However, our culture is pretty far from respecting the dignity of silverware. So in the meantime, what do we do?

There have been many attempts to add a gender-neutral pronoun to English, starting over a century ago. Wikipedia chronicles them here, along with much more details about the whole subject. This predicament came to my Carnation class’s attention recently, while we were working on grammar, so I brought in the list of invented pronouns. Their favorites were “co” and “ze.”

We decided to try and use them all day. We began by reciting the Emily Dickinson poem (#228) we’d been memorizing, gender-neutrally: Blazing in gold and quenching in purple/leaping like leopards to the sky/then at the feet of the old horizon/ ze lays zer spotted face to die. And so on. It started off well, but like these experiments tend to do, faded out over time.

And so we have to talk about unborn babies as its, and assign a gender to ambiguous strangers before we can talk about them gracefully. We slip into stereotypes too easily, calling doctors “he” and teachers “she” because it’s easier. We use the singular “they” so often our ears can’t hear its inconsistencies. And my young aspiring novelists still cannot write a novel without revealing the gender of their characters. Which is too bad, because that would be interesting.

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The Beard of Poetry

Last week my friend Joshua Gottlieb-Miller came to my Friday class as a visiting poet. It was pretty exciting. The kids had great questions for him. Some highlights:

“Are you a famous poet like Robert Frost?”

“I am zero percent famous.”

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller

Photo courtesy of 32 Poems. (Josh is an eensy bit famous after all.)

“Are you a famous poet like Charles Darwin?”

“I may be a more famous poet than Charles Darwin.”

“Do you write poems about nature, or reality?”

“Both. Sometimes I start a poem with nature, and then it needs some reality so I put in a telephone or something. You know?”

(Rapt stares and nods.)

They were amazed to find out that poets can work at Trader Joe’s (Josh says he is one of two staff poets at his branch), and that you can write poetry about recycling (Josh has an entire manuscript of recycling-related poems). Mostly, however, they were fascinated by Josh’s beard. And it is true, he has an impressive one.

When Josh was leaving, one of the girls called out, “You’ll always be famous to us! What was your name again?” Classic.

After Josh left, they wrote him a collaborative poem, each student adding a line as we went around the circle. They managed to put Josh, basketball, beards, garbage, pink fluffy unicorns, squash, and luna moths in one poem. Pretty coherently. And they wrote it in the shape of a beard and called it “The Beard of Poetry.” Josh says he’s going to frame it.

This week, they waxed on for a long time about how much they liked his teeth. They also decided they want to memorize one of his poems. Random poet-face objectification aside, I think introducing Frog Hollow to a living poet was a success.

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Some Opposites — a Frog Hollow Crankie

After a steep technical learning curve, I have a Frog Hollow Crankie* for you all. This is one we made to the poem “Some Opposites” by Richard Wilbur. We memorized this poem, and had a great time with it. It’s got a great rhythm, which helps make it easy to memorize, and it’s funny to boot.

I recorded this at home, so it’s just me performing it. Imagine ten enthusiastic young voices….

*A crankie is a moving panorama that accompanies a song, story, or poem, and is called a crankie because you crank it.

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