Although I liked a lot of the poems in Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Woods, it’s only 157 pages long, so I thought I would just cite one more poem, one that seemed particularly poignant to me after 30 years of teaching and provides ample evidence that William Stafford was right on when he was quoted on the back cover as saying, “In the current literary scene one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”
A teacher asked Paul
what he would remember
from third grade, and he sat
a long time before writing
“this year sumbody tutched me
on the sholder”
and turned his paper in.
Later she showed it to me
as an example of her wasted life.
The words he wrote were large
as houses in a landscape.
He wanted to go inside them
and live, he could ﬁll in
the windows of “o” and “d”
and be safe while outside
birds building nests in drainpipes
knew nothing of the coming rain.
I taught high school, not the third grade, but I can still identify with the poem, even if I can’t identify with the teacher who saw Paul’s paper as an “example of her wasted life.” Hopefully, she was the “sumbody” that touched Paul on the shoulder providing him with the feeling that someone cared for him, though she seems too out of touch to have been the one that did that.
As a converted caseworker, it was precisely students like Paul who inspired me to turn to teaching in hopes that I could help people before they ended up on welfare. As it turned out, that was a lot harder to do than I ever imagined, and I failed a lot more than I succeeded in helping them to succeed. While that failure makes it easy to believe that I “wasted” my life trying to help students like Paul succeed, there are more important things than “book learning.” The most important thing you can do as a teacher is to make students feel good about themselves, no matter what skills they may or may not have.
Having been a caseworker and been married to a caseworker for 17 years, I was always aware that some of my students lived unimaginably hard lives, ranging from abuse to neglect, never knowing what was coming next in their lives. Before they can move on they need to feel safe, not like “birds building nests in drainpipes.”