Blame my teachers…
…for making me a poet. It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share an essay I wrote a couple of years ago when I was waxing nostalgic about my childhood and my poetic beginnings.
This is also in answer to some recent exclamations to the effect that people are astonished that I’ve only been in the children’s poetry world for a little over a year. While it is true that I’ve only been among you wonderful people for that amount of time, I’ve been writing for forty years. I just didn’t know who I should be writing for.
I wrote my first poem at the age of seven. Here it is:
Whale in the sea
whale in the sea…
I see something else!
Oh, what could it be?
A starfish? A jellyfish?
Oh, what could it be!
I was lying on my stomach in my dad’s recliner, legs bent up the back, elbows on the footrest, tummy sticking to the black vinyl in the heat of a summer night. At the table behind me were my parents and some friends, gabbing over a game of cards. And there I was, eyes narrowed at my paper, chewing on my eraser.
A painfully shy child, I was so proud of my effort that I didn’t think twice about running to the table to interrupt the game, so eager was I to share my masterpiece. The poem was duly read and passed around, I received my shower of hugs and praise, and, content and excited, I returned to my position to get down to some serious work on “Jellyfish, Jellyfish” and the rest of my oeuvre.
And over my elementary and high school years, that oeuvre grew and grew. Poetry became “my thing,” the thing I was known for, the thing I most looked forward to when it came to homework assignments, the thing I did even when I didn’t have to.
In fourth grade, I had my first public recital of my seminal work “The Hairy Bear,” conceived under the gentle guidance of my idol, Mrs. Baker, and memorized to within an inch of its life, so that to this day it’s the only poem I know by heart.
THE HAIRY BEAR
As I was walking along the street,
a hairy bear I did meet.
He was scary and so very hairy!
He was so hairy, my hair stood on end.
I was so scared, I ran past my friend!
The hairy bear started to run.
He probably thought it was fun!
I hid behind a tree,
got stung by a bee.
I yelled for help
and funny words like “Zelp!”
It did no good
So there I stood.
The bear then caught me, but I finally bit him
and he fell in the pond and went for a swim.
because he couldn’t see,
he bumped into a tree.
There the bear lay.
I had nothing to say…
“If I were that bear, I’d cut my hair.”
–by Renée, age 10
Memorizing and saying the poem out loud made a huge impression on me. I remember that even at that young age, I was vaguely bothered by the inversion and the meter problems. I remember being dissatisfied with “ran past my friend” (originally “ran ’round the bend”), and puzzling over what to do about that whole “finally bit him/went for a swim” fiasco.
Nevertheless, there was no stopping me after the bear. Next came cinquains, haikus, diamantes. Simile, metaphor, alliteration, and assonance made me stare starry-eyed into the face of my poetic future. Onomatopoeia and iambic pentameter put me over the moon.
Later came the odes and ballads, and even my first (and last) sonnet, a poem so incomprehensible that everyone agreed it must be brilliant. And finally the awesome liberation of free verse, a deep breath of words tumbling down the page. “Ahhh,” they seemed to sigh. “Thanks for letting us out.”
Years later, looking back at my juvenile poems, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had any special talent for poetry. At first, this bothered me; I was plagued with doubts and questions. Why had my teachers encouraged and praised me, knowing—as surely they must have known—that my poetry was adolescent and amateur? Why were they so enthusiastic? Had they been pulling my leg? Should I sue?
It wasn’t until I became a high school English teacher myself, doing my best to emulate Mrs. Musser, the literary goddess of my youth, that I realized my teachers had done exactly what they should have done—they motivated and inspired me. So what if I were not destined to become the next poet laureate? They recognized my passion for words and poetry, appreciated my efforts, and put all their energy into nourishing my creativity and my love of writing. Huzzah!— I would not need my day in court after all.
Although I stopped writing poetry for many years after (and because of) college—a story for another day—I never forgot the encouragement those early teachers gave me. They made poetry a safe place for me to go, so when, decades later, I was asked to write dozens of poems for Lizard Lou: a collection of poems old and new, I was able to step back into it with only a few butterflies.
In my mind, I simply snuggled back into my dad’s chair, all summer sticky and starry-eyed, excited to share my oeuvre with the world.
SMOOCHES TO ALL YOU TEACHERS.
Video Location: BearClaw Spa, Italy.
See more poems in my poetry video library.
“The Hairy Bear” © Renée M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved. Essay reprinted with permission from All About Learning Press.
I love, “loave, luff, lerve” your oeuvre, Renee! So nice to hear about your beginnings and bravo to the great teachers who inspired and encouraged you to follow your passion! And I am glad you overcame your shyness too 🙂
The shyness didn’t go away until I moved to NYC, then it sort of disappeared, possibly out of sheer necessity. 🙂 Glad you lerve the ouevre! 🙂
I love hearing your story of becoming a poet, or rather living the poet’s life. You encourage me everyday to be the best teacher and poet I can be, and I am older than you.
My first poem I wrote while waiting for my mother to pick me up from piano lessons. I wish I could remember how old I was, probably 11 or 12. Here it is:
Spring is my favorite time of year
when the sky is blue and clear,
flowers blooming all around,
snow is melting on the ground.
Nothing brilliant there, but I do remember the feeling of spinning around singing my own words in my head. I haven’t tired of that feeling yet.
Thanks again for being such a wonderful inspiration to students of all ages.
Wow, Margaret, you just made my day. What a beautiful and kind thing to say. Your students must love you!
Your first poem is lovely, full of wonder and appreciation for the world around you. It was made for spinning and singing!
You don’t know how happy it makes me to know that your seminal work was about a bear. 🙂
Loved reading about your poetry beginnings, and what a lovely tribute to teachers!
Of course I thought of you when I was perusing bear pics, Jama! Found a couple of adorable teddy bears, but couldn’t use them, alas. 🙂
“And finally the awesome liberation of free verse, a deep breath of words tumbling down the page. “Ahhh,” they seemed to sigh. ‘Thanks for letting us out.'” Yes! And “Zelp!” to this whole post. What a joy to hear the voice of little Renee who is now such a generous teacher to all of us. Your encouraging teachers were wise indeed. Thank you for this celebration of teachers everywhere. Happy PF, friend!
And happy Teacher’s Week to you, magical friend!
Thanks for sharing your ‘early work,’ Renee! Nice to see how we all get our start…so many similarities, yet so many differences. By the way, I think many in academia these days believe incomprehensibility = brilliance, so you obviously had a hit sonnet there!
I will only tell you that the sonnet contained Orpheus and his lyre. You can imagine the rest.
Love this post! Thanks so much for sharing your hairy beginnings and your tribute to TEACHERS – Yay, Teachers! Bear hugs to you. Also, Zelp is my new favorite word.
Yay for bears and teachers!
Yes, zelp was my only option. Kelp just didn’t seem to fit the poem. 😀
Great post Renee…made me think on the special teachers in my life, and of just how long I’ve been writing poetry myself! :0)
I shared this post with both teachers a while back, and they were pleased. It’s never too late to say thanks!
Surely you misspoke? If you wrote that at age 10, it was only a few years back *wink*. Hairy Bear made me all warm and fuzzy-bearlike even!
Oh, right, my math is out of whack…I’ve only been writing for 15 years…yeah…that’s it…
Wonderful to hear about your beginnings, Renee. That scene with your parents playing cards and everyone giving you hugs is such a sweet memory, and then onward into school and more kinds of “hugs”. That is certainly the way it should be, opening a door for you. I think it’s special that you recorded your bear poem, hope other teachers share that with their students! Thanks!
I was iffy on recording the bear poem with all its problems, but then figured, what the heck? A bit of personal history in all its imperfect glory!
I have no doubt you’re giving your students all the encouragement they could possibly need. Your “fishing” poem on David’s blog is so gorgeous and moving!
They are fabulous. You are a poet laureate in our hearts, Renee!
I agree with Catherine! You are our laureate. And I’m impressed with the body of work at such a young age. As usual, a wonderful post. Love this tribute to teachers. BTW, I vote that you post your sonnet. It’s only fair. I mean after all, anyone that can make up an incredible work like “zelp” must have sprinklings of genius in her sonnet!
Terrific post, Renee. I can imagine you performing your hairy bear at age 10–zelp indeed. Your post reminded me of how wonderful it was when my high school teacher (Mr. Kirkpatrick, 11th grade English) gave me some extra recognition and encouragement. It’s probably time to do some googling and offer belated thanks.
Yup, I’m friends with Mrs. Baker (fourth-grade teacher) on FB, and recently tracked down my high school goddess Mrs. Musser, also the subject of a poem I wrote in grad school. She was that awesome. Never too late!
Love seeing your process, Renee! Thanks for participating in Poetry Friday!
Your post today hit home with me. I, too, loved playing with words growing up, until my passion was squashed by a high school creative writing teacher who made me feel like my writing would never be good enough. But this being teacher appreciation week, I will say a few other teachers have since stepped in to boost my spirit in other ways. I let my creativity play elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only recently that I’ve returned to reclaim my right to write… and I’m glad I did. Thank you for this honest post and for Hairy Bear.
Ah, Michelle, I know what you mean. For me it was an undergrad professor who quashed my passion for poetry, as I hinted by the “story for another day” remark. I’m glad we both came back!!
It was fun to read about your humble but exciting beginnings as a poet.
I am glad you didn’t go with ‘kelp’..it just so didn’t fit the mood. Zelp of course has the correct number of syllables and the /z/ at the beginning is so much more plaintive than the more authoritative /k/…
Yes, and of COURSE all these considerations passed through my ten-year-old brain! 🙂
OMG – ten year old me wrote a response to ten year old you!
If I bite a bear, will he bite back?
And think I am a tasty snack?
I hope he “sticks” to eating honey
And worries that l might taste funny.
Wow! And you already had great meter back then! I knew we were kindred bear spirits!
Thank you for sharing this — I loved reading it as a teacher and a mom and a writer. College and grad school stifled my writing, too. Hoping to read that story another day.
It’s kind of a short story…but knowing me, I’m sure I can make it long. Ha!
“In my mind, I simply snuggled back into my dad’s chair, all summer sticky and starry-eyed, excited to share my oeuvre with the world.”
One of the places I can find my childhood me (who became the writer me) is in a pool of lamplight at “my” end of the couch, reading. She’s also in the middle of the back yard, singing Bible School songs to the sun in the early morning, and, older now, laying on a blanket on the hood of the 1960 Ford Falcon out in the country away from the lights of town watching meteors score the sky.
Thanks for introducing us to 10 year-old Renee. Thanks for reminding me to stay in touch with 10, 16, 20+ year-old Mary Lee!
Ah yes, Mary Lee, I know that pool of lamplight. What lovely memories you shared. I’m glad the post took you back to your old self. 🙂
WOO I LOVE that poem! 😀
Hehe. Thank you beary much, Erik!
I loved hearing your poetry story. I had a teacher in high school who encouraged me the same way. Thanks for this tribute to those wonderful folks who cheered us on.
They didn’t just encourage me, they kind of saved me. I bet lots of students feel that way about teachers – at least I hope so!
I loved learning about how you came to be the poet that you are today through praise and guidance from your teachers! But I must chide you for saying you have no special talent for it. I (and tons of other people) know you do! 🙂
Thanks, Teresa! Though I was talking about my young self having no special talent. I hope I’ve improved since then! 😉
Renee~So much fun to hear about your writing journey. Your recliner poem is just as sweet as can be…and you’re talent was already showing through. I’ve taught a lot of students over the years and I do think some have a natural talent for poetry. Both of your early poems that you shared indicate to me that your talent was there as a youngster 🙂
I think it is wonderful that you honored your teachers. I know that means so much to them…just as their encouragement meant so much to you.
It is fun to see what glimmers of special talent shine through our students, and our kids, too. I was just observing my boys drawing: Claudio is really good at drawing details on his figures, while Lorenzo prefers broader strokes and “drawing” letters. I wonder what this portends…? It will be fun to see. 🙂
Great post, Renée. I love seeing where it all began and I’m glad your teachers were there to inspire and motivate you. You touch on so many interesting points here (like why did college make you stop writing poems? And is talent important? Maybe not– love and passion are so much more interesting…) that I hope you revisit this post and tell us more.
Thanks, Dana. I think there will be a sequel to the saga…
It is always a treat to read your posts, Renee! You are so funny 🙂 “that whole “finally bit him/went for a swim” fiasco” hahaha 🙂 I loved hearing about your brilliant beginnings and getting to sample some of your early work. How wonderful that you had teachers who encouraged you!
It bothered me then and it bothers me now! But I resisted the urge to fix it for this post. Let it be known that perfect meter is a learned thing. 😀
Great, fun, poem Renee! Nice to hear about your juvenile writing journey.
I wrote my first poem when I was 9. I wish I did when I was 7 😛 . The schools here in Malaysia don’t really emphasize on poetry, leading students to believe that poetry is just “boring Shakespeare works”. 🙁
Anyway, here’s my original poem. It’s so original that it is complete with original grammar errors. 😛
My Rotten Day
I slipped and fall and I got wet.
I hurt my head and got upset.
I tried again and I seemed better,
But I fell down and drenched my sweater.
So I went to try once more,
But I tumbled on the floor.
Then I stood up, full of pain.
My mother said I have no brain.
Never am I going to rollerskate
On the ice pond where everyone iceskate.
Because just now I broke my arm,
Why do I always get into harm?
~by Gloson, age 9
I’m sorry to hear about the lack of poetry in your school — but that doesn’t seem to have stopped you! Do your fellow students enjoy your books? Have you inspired them to write?
Well done on the 9-year-old poem! 🙂
Oh Renee this is wonderful. Thanks for sharing this journey with us. All takes is a little encouragement for inspiration to be set free!