Two poets appeared at Horace Mann school, an elite private school in the Bronx, and caused quite a stir when students took their directions for writing poems in unexpected and unacceptable directions.
Poets Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, award winners and creative writing teachers from Florida who have collaborated on three books, came to NY to bring their skills to the high school students. They read one of their poems as a prompt to the 9-12th graders, then set the 700 students on the path of self-expression.
Students were given index cards, then by instructed to write five words beginning with “I remember…” on one card, then seven words including a color on another, and five words referencing a pop culture icon. Cards were randomly shuffled and students volunteered to read the cards aloud, thereby creating a new poem from the various fragments.
The group poem didn’t turn out as expected. The problem was that the poem that Duhamel and Seaton had written and read to the students, which used slurs against blacks and gays, instead of prompting a gush of creative energy had primed a pump full of bile. Student contributions repeated the slurs without irony, without context, without explanation. It was raw prejudice that spewed out.
“We invited them to express themselves, and they did,” said Duhamel.
Dr. Schiller, the upper school’s head, said that the poem read by Duhamel and Seaton was “filled with profanity” and “included hateful and highly antagonistic language.” The visiting professors saw the point of their poem as blunting the idea that “gay lives are somehow different from straight ones.”
Dr. Schiller, publicly apologized, saying, “It was my responsibility to ensure that the presentation to our students was fitting and appropriate. It was not. I should have intervened to stop the assembly, and I did not do so.”
And good thing he didn’t. For the poem may do a great deal of good, despite (or perhaps because of) the discomfort it caused. It has revealed a reality that had been all but invisible to the administration.
One senior said that the students’ cards accurately reflected a common attitude in the school. A black student said, “Words and ideas were thrown around that I’ve heard expressed in hallways, classrooms and the cafeteria. I personally have been subject to remarks much worse than those shared on stage . . . We need to have a culture in which it’s normal to hear people speaking up not only when they feel attacked but also when they feel.”
Franz Kafka wrote, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” An ax has been taken to Horace Mann, breaking open the frozen sea of silence. Duhamel and Seaton probably never expected to be so effective. This is art at its best.
Schiller shouldn’t be apologizing for inviting the poets but thanking them for starting a discussion long overdue.