Updated: Feb 15, 2020
By Annie Newcomer:
Recently I attended a writers’ summer workshop for both youth and adults, which made for an interesting mingling. The students reflected every shade of interest. The adults, though few, readily engaged. The classroom was reminiscent of the decades-old “Open Classroom” concept, with the comings and goings of the youth in and out of the classroom too numerous for a mature body ( such as myself) to keep track of. Student mobility seemed so alien to the assigned seats and hand-raising of my youthful classroom settings.
Despite our ages, economic levels, races, genders, and political persuasions, this collection of poets, writers, and songwriters immediately shared a common bond: a need to express in a way that somehow involved, in one form or another, writing. It was as though we had unconditionally agreed to celebrate the smorgasbord of work that would be created and shared that week. We understood that, in one way or another, our well-being was contingent upon our ability to find a space for self-expression.
I felt as though somehow I had stepped into another world. Since the friend who invited me was over thirty years my junior and most were a couple decades younger than she, I wondered if I should excuse myself . . . or even panic.
Instead, as I took my seat and looked into these young, unfamiliar faces, I was unsure of many things. But I made a pact with myself to park my concerns, insecurities (what older lady isn’t at least a little bit insecure?) and, yes, perhaps fears at the entry. I was about to unlock this experience with the “key of my imagination.” I was, indeed, ready to cross over into this literary Twilight Zone, hoping that Rod Sterling had prepared a worthy script.
One gentleman spooned words together to share a love poem of sorts about a black woman’s beautiful hair. I slipped him a paper before he left (he left early each day for work) with a suggestion of a website where he might submit his work. He looked surprised, and I don’t think he realized just how his poem had resonated with us all. One day, he shared that he had recently been released from prison—a 40-year sentence. He gave a warning to the youth in the class, “Do not go down the road that I foolishly chose.”
There was one young beauty of a poet who always had two poems to read at recitation time. After she recited the first, the teacher learned to ask, “Is there a second?” Indeed, there was always another, like a kid sister tagging along not wanting to miss out on the fun.
A young white teen appeared to take the weight of the world on his shoulders. “How could anyone embrace racism?” he would ask time and again. With his intrinsic caring nature, I saw him as a person who one day could make a difference. At times, he seemed as though he were a tortured and anguished Christ. But he wasn’t looking for pity. He was looking for change.
Another younger student was always so eager to read his work, and if the circle went counterclockwise and he ended up on the tail end of the readings, he’d start mumbling, “I have a poem. I want to read.” So we’d leapfrog and allow him to cut ahead of the line. What a gift to love your work and to be so eager to share.
Sometimes the adults in the room found it hard to believe that anyone, especially students so young, could assemble these heartfelt masterpieces so quickly.
As I listened to the students, I remembered the man who used to read me my bedtime stories: my North Star, my father, Gene Klier. I grew up during the civil rights movement in upstate New York. My dad was intolerant of intolerance. He headed a department that brought in million-dollar contracts to the university. Promoting education was his lifework, and yet he sent my brothers, sisters, and me to the inner city school, the first integrated school in the area in the 1960s.
We were always taught that skin tone had nothing to do with quality. My older brother played lacrosse on a Native American team when most didn’t even know that lacrosse was a game. My father was all about social justice before that term had been coined. It was not uncommon for a neighbor to call my dad with a need. My father agreed to accompany one frantic dad to find his son who had been bullied and was in pain. The runaway ended up in Philadelphia. The fathers drove though the night to bring Billy back home. There was an obnoxious neighbor who put stakes into the ground of an elderly neighbor’s property trying to reset the property lines. Someone told him to call my dad. Just a curious ten-year-old, I followed my dad to the property and stood next to him and watched as he kicked those wooden stakes so hard that they flew across the street. Problem solved.
My father loved opera, Shakespeare, science, and sports. He told me that a girl could excel as well as a boy, and I believed him. No problem. My dad taught me that there is not just one North Star. As one who excelled in mathematics, he showed me the value of addition. Through him I first understood that while my story may be important to me, the universe of stories is what makes us happy. Sharing makes us wiser and gives us the courage to spend an afternoon just like the one I spent at the library this summer, fearlessly entering into this Twilight Zone.
I agree with the oft-quoted line,”The Child is the Father of Man.” The stories by Kansas City’s youth that I heard this summer showed me examples of resilience, care for one’s community, fearlessness in sharing one’s mistakes with the hope of deterring another from making similar ones, and joy for one’s work.
I have added all to my list of North Stars.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical enter's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.