This has been a brutal summer. For sure, there have been some personal moments of tenderness and beauty. But taking a larger view, the summer of 2016 has been bloody. On June 12th, we woke to the horror of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. A gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others as they danced and celebrated at a GLBT nightclub. This event earned its place as the worst mass shooting in American history. On July 5th Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On July 6th Philando Castile was killed by police in Minnesota. These killings received significant attention but dozens more were documented by various news organizations. As of today, August 27, 2016, The Washington Post counts 619 people who have been killed by police in 2016 and we are only at the end of August, the eighth month. We have four more to go. Killings by police were not the only horrors this summer either. On July 7th a gunman in Dallas opened fire during a protest against police shootings and killed five Dallas Police officers. On July 18th a gunman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana killed 3 police officers. Quite a summer.
Similarly, the death toll in the Syrian Civil War has been devastating. The images we see daily coming out of Aleppo and other Syrian cities breaks your heart. Civilians, including children, are being bombed, gassed, and starved and we see their images daily.
As a poet and teacher, I am asking myself today: How does one write poems in the midst of this carnage? How does one teach high school English in the midst of this sorrow?
My school year began two days ago. I teach high school juniors and seniors, American Literature and Classic Literature respectively. On the first day, I asked all my students to write one paragraph describing a moment from the summer which they found meaningful. I was not ready for what I received. I stayed late after school yesterday reading and commenting on their responses. Some wrote about family joys, birthdays, and vacations. But I was stunned by the number who wrote about the Orlando killings, the killings of unarmed Black men and women, and the killings of police officers. I was stunned– but I shouldn’t have been.
Our students are afraid. My African-American and Latino students nearly all wrote of their fear for their family members, their friends, themselves. A few students whose relatives are police officers wrote about their fear for their loved one. Many students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds wrote about their horror resulting from the Orlando killings. Students who are gay, who have friends or family members who are in the GLBT community– all are afraid.
How do we name this in the classroom? How do we speak to this in the classroom? Thankfully, my school is facing it honestly with a conversation among faculty members at one of our opening meetings. We have an excellent counseling staff who can help the students who might come to them. But in the classroom, where I spend my days, we can name and explore these fears. I believe in the classroom as a place for truth telling. I also believe in the classroom as a place where students can explore, in writing or in conversation, their own feelings about these events.
American Literature is a natural place to discuss the unjust treatment Black people have often received throughout America’s history. Much of the literary work we explore in American Literature deals directly with white supremacy and the brutality it has wrought on Black people. Reading Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, slave narratives like Harriett Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, poets like Langston Hughes and Phyllis Wheatley, fiction writers like James Baldwin– all these writers offer us insights and wisdom into the violence we see in America today. Some of the insights of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and the searing observations of a poet like Emily Dickinson can bring light to these fears.
Similarly, allowing students the opportunity to write about these events can be helpful. Whether students explore, in writing, the events of the Summer of 2016 or they delve into the experiences of enslaved people like Solomon Northup, their writing can give voice to their own fears, thus helping to pierce the silence that makes fear so much worse. We can also give students the opportunity to write directly about their fears. They did this in the brief assignment I described above– and that effort was not intentional.
When the pace of violence in our country is as unchecked as it has been this summer– when the violence of the world comes to us in bright colors, as it did this summer– we have an obligation to the students who sit before us. They are taking it all in. They absorb what the world brings just as I do. Their sorrow, anger, or fear deserves to be named and discussed. Only then can it move toward healing.
Some thoughts about how a poet responds to a summer like we’ve had will come in a future blog post.
Photo: The stoop of Langston Hughes’ house in Harlem. 6/22/2016. Taken by J. Ross