Poetry, Religion, and Education

The first experiences with poetry in my education was also tied with one of my first experiences with prejudism against non-Christian religions. I don’t remember which poem we were reading in my 3rd grade class, but I remember not understanding a reference to Original Sin.  “It’s why you were baptized,” The teacher told me.

“But I wasn’t,” I said.

“You’ve never been baptized?” She asked me, eyes suddenly wide. When I told her no, she shook her head, muttering, “That’s not good.”

I doubt she would have said that to another girl—a friend of mine—in the class who wore the hijab. The difference between us was that my skin was lighter, and I never covered my hair in school. It wouldn’t be for several more years that I would understand the benefits and privileges I would receive throughout my life.

Fast forward to high school (no, we didn’t study poetry during the remainder of elementary or middle school), my ninth grade class, and we’re reading a poem by Rumi (always fucking Rumi. Rumi is the only Muslim poet in all of existence, in case anyone was wonder… the Islamic Golden Age wasn’t a thing). “We aren’t Muslim. We don’t get the refences to Miriam.” One student said. This was the same student who liked to shout out that the way to spot a Muslim was by large noses “like Hussain.” So, no, I doubt he even read the poem. The teacher looks to me.

“Ameen is Arabic, isn’t it? Pakistani?”

“Syrian.” Don’t say it. Don’t fucking say it.

Then she said, “So you understand the references to Islam?”

There it is! Because all Arabs are Muslim, and there are no denominations within the religion. “My family is Shi’a. Rumi was Sufi.” Yes, there’s a difference. “And I’m sure if you read the poem, you’ll figure out the Christian version of the name Miriam.” Really not that far off from Mary, you assholes.

“That was rude,” the student commented. (The was the same student who would later draw swatsikas on the bathroom walls and off hand mutter sand-n**** and towel head to my friend [also Muslim] and me in the hall…. But, you know. Whatever).

“Poetry is hard, guys. I understand if you have trouble with this.”

Poetry. Is. Hard.

No. I still don’t know which part of that situation I’m more pissed at. But it does bring me to my next memory.

The Odyssey. This was the next example of poetry we were given in 9th grade, with the assumption that we rarely read poetry prior. Excellent idea. Take a bunch of lazy 14 year old, and give them a piece of text that is fairly difficult to understand when you’re not used to older styles of writing, and remind us over and over again that poetry is fucking hard. That will 100% up our appreciation for the art.

Oh, wait… No it won’t because that’s probably one of the worst methods of introducing students to poetry, next to forcing them to read Shakep—OH MY GOD THEY MADE US READ SHAKESPEARE NEXT. WHY WOULD THEY DO THIS TO US?

Yes, the following work of poetry we studied was Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream. Not a bad choice to introduce Shakespeare… Had the teacher not have repeated excused lazy reading for the work—or, rather, poetry in general—because poetry is hard.

Now, in terms of literature to study in by school, I agree that we should have read books like The Odyssey and Midsummer’s Night Dream. There’s a reason they’re considered classics, and that’s not my problem with the way poetry was weaved into my high school education. My problem was these were the words that introduced poetry to us, long after we should have been. Where was Shel Silverstein? Where was Sharon Creech? And more importantly, as we reached middle and high school, where were the contemporary writers to stand alongside the contemporary ficton and nonfiction novels we were told to read? Why were the works by Warsan Shire or Marie Howe less valuable to our education than Lucy Grealy? Why was poetry always sold as something that was hard by nature, and why was it always so deeply tired with Christianity, despite being taught at non-religious public schools?

I bring this up because I’m deeply afraid and worried for the future of our public education system, as I’m sure many are. As it is, it’s riddled with flaws from not truly being dissociated from religion (rather, Christianity) to denouncing particular forms of art and literature. But rather than fixing it, a woman who has openly stated that state funding should be pumped out of public schools and into both religious schools (again, I’m sure we can guess which religious she was referring to… hint, hint, it sure as fuck isn’t Islam or Judaism) and charter schools. I’m scared because as it is, the arts are so quick to be cut when a school loses funding. I’m scared because right now, poetry isn’t valued in the education system as deeply as it should. And I’m scared because, despite protesting and calling representatives and voting, I’m not sure if the children going to public schools over the next few years can truly be saved by this unqualified excuse of a person. Even if in 2018, we manage to push more progressives into Legislative branch, even if we get Trump out of office in four years, we’re still destroying the lives of children, enabling the idea that anything that requires the least bit of thought is “too hard so you don’t have to do it,” enabling the notion that it’s okay to be racist ad assume that your beliefs are the only beliefs.

Education is the only true weapon the people have against a man who does not want to lead a democratic society. Trump wants a dictatorship. And he is well aware that picking away at an already shaking education system, privatizing our institutions, and creating wider gaps between the upper and lower classes, destroying the middle class—that’s how a society falls into dictatorship. And for this, I am afraid.

2 Replies to “Poetry, Religion, and Education”

  1. Hey Amanda, I want to tell you about my experience here in SUNY Geneseo’s school of education. I’m majoring in English and English Education and in less than a year, I’ll be certified to teacher 7-12 grade English. Currently I’m in Block III, which means that every Tuesday and Thursday for 2.5 hours, 15 other students and I acquire the skills to teach 7-12 English by arguably one of the best-and-most-qualified professors in the department. Last Tuesday my Block III class watched the Betsy DeVos vote live. With our professor. You could hear a pin drop. Just as a handful of us suspected, Mike Pence was brought out to break the tie, since two Republicans had “so valiantly” flipped. The ordeal was stomach-turning and unfortunately, the aftermath will be a long fight. But there is a silver lining in all of this.

    I speak on behalf of myself and the other 15 students in my class when I say that teachers and soon-to-be teachers are walking into schools with bared teeth. We are dedicated. We want to promote creativity within students, both concretly and abstractly. We want funds for arts and music but we will allocate more time to free writing and creative writing if we must. Above all, we want to end once and for all this belief that English subject matter, such as Shakespeare, is painful and oppressive to students. Shakespeare has lasted this long because the man and his plays are fucking brilliant and timeless. Also, SUPER problematic when you read it through feminist, marxist etc lenses- which is a fun time. Personally, I cannot wait to introduce my students to graphic novels that depict the plays, or comics that bring humor and explanation to S’s works. As for assignments and assessments, we learn daily that students should be engaged on diverse multi-modal levels. The new age of teachers are growing, learning and adapting to the changing climate. Our country’s educational future looks daunting, but I’m game. Your sentiment is common. There are students at this very school who are listening and finding ways to gratify English content everyday.

  2. Hey Amanda!

    It’s alright to be scared. Fear is a good motivator. At the risk of not sounding cliche, I just wanted to offer a response to this insightful post, because it got me thinking.

    I have also struggled with, on reflection, being critical of my public school education, and specifically questioning the repertoire of books that were required reads as I moved through my education. Once I got to high school, I’d always hear teachers and fellow classmates talking about kids stopping reading. That the material you require your students to engage with definitely shapes their opinion of literature, and how they feel when they are engaging with text. However, I don’t like to think of reading as something that can just be turned off. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that just as I go through periods of writing block, I also have dry spells in my reading–where I’m either not as engaged when I’m reading, I have no desire to find other texts to read, or I am simply not reading.

    I love your point that poetry is hard. Because I definitely got that message in primary and secondary education, as did the majority of my classmates. We are introduced to poetry through the stereotyped ‘classics’ (yes, this phrasing may be controversial) but as a current English major I can say that I remember sitting in class and finally grasping the plot of Julius Caesar. Another thing that angers me about this way of education is that I never considered Shakespeare a poet. I didn’t consider any writer a poet unless they wrote strict poetry–which of course is also not true.

    I’m with you, and I feel the frustrations of all these contradictions. But we need to continue talking about these issues and perspectives, so that “English content” is not compartmentalized but is revered and understood and appreciated. And this of course is going on around us in more ways than one, so we should focus on that, as Allison brought up.

    Thanks for this post!

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