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.