Poetry, Homework and Trying to Make Sense of It All

Updated on June 18, 2018
Christina St-Jean profile image

I am a mom of two awesome children who teach me more daily than I ever thought possible. I love writing, exercise, movies, & LGBT advocacy.

The Poets Meet


The Free Bird And The Crystal Stair

My oldest daughter is about one week away from her Grade 8 graduation, and trying to get her to get through this final month has been a little like pushing a rope with all the requisite frustrations.

On Fathers' Day, we were talking. I'd asked her what sort of homework she had, as it was a Sunday and I had no desire to see her up til all hours getting it done. I've been trying to emphasize to her that when high school starts next year, she won't have the luxury of waiting til the last minute as she sometimes tried to do in the last year of elementary school. She got a bit of an odd look on her face - you know, the sort that you get when you've eaten something that tastes a little funny - and said she had to do an essay style response to two poems.

I tried to stifle my distaste. Even though I'm an English major and love to teach English, I have always disliked poetry units. I've never quite gotten a handle on putting together a really good unit for poetry, probably because I've never been a great fan of it. Sure, I've read a few really great poems, and nowadays, I really enjoy spoken word poetry, but as far as poetry goes as a full genre, I'm not a big fan. At any rate, I asked my girl to tell me the poems, and was pleasantly surprised that it was "Mother To Son" by Langston Hughes and "Caged Bird" by Dr. Maya Angelou.

For those who might be unfamiliar, "Mother To Son" is written as though a mother is giving her son advice about life in general while "Caged Bird" is about going out and living life instead of being "caged" by how you're expected to be - at least, these are my interpretations. These are great poems particularly for students at this time of year, especially for kids graduating either elementary school or high school, in my view, and I told my daughter as much. She even appeared to be listening, and I felt pretty good that she at least had a couple of ideas to get started with her written response, which was supposed to be in essay format.

What I didn't expect was that she would cage herself based on something said to her months ago at school.

She had been told earlier this year that generally speaking, kids who were really good at creative writing basically would not be able to write essays. Essays were far too structured and had too many rules that creative writing generally did not. Because my daughter's teacher expected her response to be in essay format, my daughter was now somehow convinced that nothing made sense and she would not be able to get the work done, regardless of our earlier discussion.

In short, even though she knew what she wanted to say - and I did confirm this with her as we were talking - she'd now convinced herself that the whole assignment just didn't make sense and she wouldn't be able to do it.

She'd been caged by self-doubt - never mind the fact that at this point in the year, knowing that her Grade 8 grad was looming in a week and she just wants to be done with elementary school - and was rapidly becoming quite angry at the thought of having to piece an essay together.

"Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," Hughes wrote, and I was reminded of that line while my daughter and I argued back and forth about the necessity of doing the work even at this point in the year.

It's hard to push through when something is challenging, particularly when it's been suggested or you've been directly told that you will have a hard time with something because your talents lie elsewhere. It's hard to keep going when you know you're so close to the end and you just want to coast.

Nothing good ever comes easy, and while I am definitely not one to chill and just read poetry for something to do, there are certain poems that resonate. These two poems by Hughes and Angelou are a bit challenging because of their dialect, but have a wealth of information about just how to live life.

Nothing comes easy, and sometimes you have to accept that. Don't ever stop pushing through the challenges to see the crystal, though.

Don't fall into the trap of your own doubts.

Don't be afraid to fly.

Don't avoid the climb because there might be unpleasantness along the way.

How else will you live your life the way it's meant to be lived?

Mother To Son

Caged Bird

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