'It Doesn't Have to Make Sense'

Article excerpt

AT THE PLACE once known as Franz Sigel School in the Fox Park neighborhood, you find the typical array of inner city problems that disrupt learning and threaten lives.

Ninety-five percent of the children come from homes so impoverished that the students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Most come from single-parent families. Some fifth graders are already wearing gang paraphernalia. And a good percentage struggle with English, their second language.

To deal with all these problems, the St. Louis public school system and a welter of social agencies, universities, foundations and businesses have turned the place into the Sigel Community Education Center. Meaning it's open after hours and on weekends. Meaning that at various times during the week, you might find there physicians, professors, nutritionists, computer experts, social workers, psychologists, business leaders and, uh, poets.

Yeah, poets.

Principal Gerald Arbini is grateful for what all the professionals give to his school, which has until recently ranked at or near the bottom in some meaningful educational categories - test scores, attendance, suspensions and retentions. But the poets send a jolt crackling through the place each Wednesday.

They're dispatched by the venerable non-profit arts and humanities organization, Springboard for Learning. Springboard is best known for sending specialists to classrooms around the metropolitan area to teach about the cultures of other lands - usually one at a time. This phalanx of poets is a first.

Every child writes poetry at Sigel - the learning disabled, the speech impaired, the behavior disordered, even those children who can hardly speak a lick of English. They write verse about peanut shells, about animal crackers, as part of charm bracelets and rainbows. They sing their poems, sign them, chant them, recite them in rap, and dance them.

The works occasionally reflect their worst fears, their anger, their insolence. More often they shimmer with humor, cheek and self-love.

"My face reminds me of my mom," writes third grader Maurice Cables. "My face reminds me of me./ My face reminds me of when I was ten./ My face is so handsome./ I am the king of handsome."

Trends suggest that most of Maurice's classmates won't graduate from high school and that many won't even get to finish the fifth grade before their parents yank them out of this school and neighborhood and take them to another.

So will a poem - whether well wrought or clumsy - help save one of these little lives?

Don't know. But as poetry teacher Alyssa Royse tells her students when they first put pen, pencil or crayon to paper: "It doesn't have to make sense."

And it doesn't have to be grammatical, either. Oh, there are rules to poetry. And the poetry teachers work them in when and where they can. Poems are written in lines and verses, not sentences and paragraphs. Similes are appreciated if not required. Active verbs get you somewhere.

But mostly, the poems encourage these children to mess around with words and their imaginations. Royse is good at this. Dressed in jeans and sandals, sounding more like a hip older sister than a teacher, she bounces around the room.

"Can you picture yourself as a song?" Royse asks a class of fifth graders.

"As an animal?

"As the weather? What kind of weather would you be?"

"Windy and rainy," says one child.

"A tornado," says another.

And still a third: "A rainbow."

"A rainbow? That's great!"

"Where do you think I'm going with this? We're going to write a poem about how you picture yourself. Should we write one as a class?"

One child is staring out the window, but the others are following along and offering lines:

An umbrella on a rainy day

twirling in the wind

"I heard someone say protecting. …