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A Day in the Life with Seventh Graders

May 13, 2009

Dear Dad, Thank you for coming into Mrs. Oljace’s class to tell us about your writing. It was surprising to me because even as your own daughter I haven’t read or heard much of your writing. I was actually shocked myself at how good of a writer you actually are. Personally, you presented and read better than I ever expected you would. Thanks.   XO, Marlee

Mrs. Oljace’s 7th Grade ELA Class, 3rd Hour, 4/18/08


When I was asked by Mrs. Oljace to come back to Dunckel Middle School and read some of my poems to her new seventh graders, I was hesitant. The day last April spent in front of my daughter Marlee’s class and three other ELA (English Language Arts) classes was meaningful. I understood then how tiring yet inspiring it is to stand in front of almost 100 seventh graders throughout one day, telling them writing is more than a worthless exercise to be avoided at all costs. Still, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to read more poems to a new group of seventh graders, including one about my brother who died six weeks after completing seventh grade.

            I wasn’t sure what to do but after reading again some of the heartfelt and thankful responses from the seventh grade class of 2008, I acquiesced, figuring: what’s one day in my life?

            I brought my two books, picked a few poems in them, brought a couple of recent essays and signed in at the front office of Dunckel, where Judy volunteers most every Monday morning. I picked up my name tag and proceeded to Room 110, just a few minutes early.

            The kids came in and one girl yelled out, “Hi, Mr. Goldman.” It didn’t hurt that my name was written on the blackboard, and that Mrs. Oljace had prepped her students with, “It is nice to actually have an adult address the class who likes to write.” She said she was proud that a parent would actually take time to write and then read to her students. For me, it was one of the few times that I have ever read my writings aloud to any audience. So the need was mutual.

            Last year, I read my autobiographical essay, “Fifth Grade,” and poems “Down,” “Safa,” and “Kenny’s Song,” among others. This year, I decided to read a couple of poems, “Nightmare with Shoes” and “A Bad Poem,”  written during college, followed it up with “Pass Away” written three years after Kenny’s death, and “Severance,” about firing an outside salesperson 13 years ago. Looking for something relevant, I read “The End of the World,” written during the last avian flu scare (instead of the current swine flu scare) and then read “Am I Getting Old,” an essay about going to a rock concert with Marlee. I also read to two classes “Eloise,” the poem about my grandmother who lived the last fifteen years of her life in a mental institution, and “A Mother’s Courage,” an essay about a mother fighting for the life of her son with cancer.

            One kid asked, “Do you write any funny poems?” I admitted that I had written a couple of funny poems and some satirical essays but as I mentioned to them, writing for me was a therapeutic way to express my most compelling thoughts and feelings. If you want comedy, I thought, watch The Office or 30 Rock on TV. 

            After the readings, the students asked questions, then spent a few minutes trying to write their own poems, and some of them read their poems in front of the class. I was never good writing a poem within a short deadline and empathized with those who struggled to come up with words. One girl read a two line poem about how school sucks and another wrote a poem that complained about how mean and ugly another student (not in the same room) was. Other students read poems about dancing, the Red Wings, soccer, irritation, one wrote about the loss of her baby brother, another about her grandfather’s death, and a girl wrote a touching poem to her father about the sadness she felt during her father’s very long travels away from home.

            I mentioned how kids now listen to poetry in hip-hop songs like Eminem’s and write more than ever, with instant messaging and texting. I said that some texts are similar to poems. (Maybe one day we’ll read the Collected Love and Text Poems of Kwame Kilpatrick.) But most importantly, I wanted the kids to know that writing doesn’t have to be boring and meaningless. It can instead be a way to express what’s most hidden and a way to survive life after school.

            I wanted to tell the girl that school might suck now but later on, it may become your most cherished memory. Wait till you are working in a droll office or unemployed or fighting just to earn a paycheck. Who knows what will be when these seventh graders are working in the “real world?” Will GM or Chrysler still exist? Will most jobs be done for online companies? Are U.S. companies going to survive, competing against China?

            For now, these kids can stay in their sheltered worlds, not worried about the future of the economy and whether they will be able to survive. They can text and watch TV and talk on their cell phones and listen to their iPods without fear. But when they graduate, being able to write is not only critical for a future job but is one way to navigate the world and to understand oneself.

            Seventh grade is the point right in the middle of middle school, between being newly scared after elementary school and being prepped for high school. Hormones start raging, puberty advances, disrespect between kids often escalates. There’s a mad sequence of bar and bat mitzvahs throughout the year and little romances begin and end. Teachers play a tug-of-war with their students as they walk into class, just aching to leave at the end of the day to play soccer or baseball, go to music or dance classes. I told the students I didn’t like to write in seventh grade but began to enjoy and take pride in my writing in tenth grade.

            I don’t remember much about seventh grade except my bar mitzvah and making a record album in band. I do remember my brother’s bar mitzvah in the beginning of 1982, at the end of Kenny’s winter break during seventh grade, because I have watched the video tape over the years and can remember some of Kenny’s best friends from East Middle School on Middlebelt in Farmington Hills. It’s strange to think that my daughter, Marlee, is in a Farmington Hills middle school less than three miles away. Last year, in seventh grade, she wrote that she was “shocked” that I “presented and read better” than she ever expected I would. This year, she was excited that I was doing it again and wanted to read all the students’ letters before I did.

            Last year, I rushed through a reading of “Kenny’s Song,” to avoid any voice-cracking and this year, I read “Pass Away” even faster. When I read, I didn’t think about seventh grade being Kenny’s last grade 27 years ago. I didn’t dwell on the fact that the kids were the same age Kenny was before he died. Nevertheless, many kids wrote to me how touched they were by the poem, “Pass Away,” and were inspired enough to write for themselves. One student wrote, “You inspired me to write some poetry, and you taught me that poetry can be about anything you want it to be, and that nobody can grade what you really feel.” She’s right. Nobody can grade what your really feel or think or write to yourself.

I wish Kenny had a chance to write some poems and stories that we could still cherish to this day. And I wish that many of these kids can become good writers so that they can express what’s deep inside them and always be able to tell their own stories.

Last year, I wrote letters to Mrs. Oljace’s classes and wrote in each one of them, “Each of your lives is a gift. Cherish your life, enjoy yourself every day, and share what you think and feel with others, both in speech and in writing. Tell your story. Each of you has something unique to say, songs and stories to be told, so don’t be afraid to say it.”

I believe it now more than ever. I also wrote to the seventh graders last year, “As you know by hearing my poems about the loss of friends and loved ones, you can’t take life for granted. Make every day count.”

As I think about Marlee growing up and Kenny never growing up and think of Mrs. Oljace’s seventh graders passing their way from children to young adults, I just want to stop each and every one of them in the hallway on their way to class and say it again, “Make every day count. Make every day count!”

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