|"Escape" by Amelia Whelan|
Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
This Emerson quote is my favorite from Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes: An Anthology for Middle Schoolers, edited by Tabatha Yeatts. It's one of several that are scattered throughout the collection, interspersed with 70 poems by 50 poets (many of whom will be familiar to TLD readers). I'm honored to be among them.
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The take home here is to make sure Imperfect is ready and waiting for whenever it's needed—that moment when a child reaches out to a book, rather than a person, for private reassurance. Chances are, it will happen.
Reading numerous reviews that have popped up from week to week (I particularly enjoyed this interview with Tabatha), I've been deliberating over which of my Imperfect poems I'd like to share. The one I keep coming back to is "To the boy playing with his army men on the front lawn," but to be honest, I've been reluctant. It's the most personal of the three, by far. Mistakes are hard to confess to when they happen, but sometimes they're even difficult to own up to decades later! It's one thing to see my poem on the page, but another entirely to talk about it openly in a blog post. My reluctance is why I know I must.
TO THE BOY PLAYING WITH HIS ARMY
MEN ON THE FRONT LAWN:
They say that everyone is fighting some kind of battle,
but I have no good excuse for my surprise attack—
a ride-by on bicycle, words flung like a grenade.
I wanted to hear the pop of the pin,
taste the insult in my mouth,
feel my heart pound in the moments before the blast.
And then it was done.
(I couldn't take it back.)
I pedal away feeling like the enemy—
even to myself.
– Michelle Heidenrich Barnes
Part of the reason I've been reluctant to share this poem is because the backstory involves more than just myself.
It involves the victim, of course, but I can be fairly sure of protecting his anonymity since I don't even recall his name. If I replay the event in my mind (which I have, over and over), the words weren't all that demeaning. Despite him looking up when I passed, I'm not even sure he clearly heard what I said or thought much about it. He might have—I didn't stick around long enough to find out. But I know very well what I intended. It wasn't about the words. It was the fact that I spontaneously made a choice to hurt his feelings, and the cutting manner in which I put him down.
What makes this mistake particularly difficult to talk about is the fact that it also involves someone I love and care about—my brother. Four years my senior, we were never all that close growing up. We didn't even attend the same schools at the same time. But those who knew my family back then might recall that he struggled to find his place at school—he was teased and bullied. And, by the way, he played with miniature army men. Back then, lots of children grew up playing war. Still do, I imagine.
Although my brother was not the direct victim of my ride-by attack, he was the indirect, unknowing victim. Ultimately this poem is about my own insecurity. Even though we never went to school together, when you grow up in a small suburb, word gets around among students. Especially students with siblings. And fear is a powerful motivator. Despite the fact that I did "fit in" socially, I was afraid that if I ever stuck up for my older brother, I would bear the consequences. So what did I do? In this instance, I took out my fear of being bullied on someone else. I became the bully. For someone who values compassion as highly as I do, this was a tough pill to swallow. I still feel the heartburn.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. (Not all bullying stories do.) My brother turned out fine despite his social struggles at school—something else that's incredibly important for middle schoolers to hear! He turned out better than fine, actually. I'm so proud of the way he's challenged himself throughout his life, his many notable achievements, the respect he garners from his peers, and his incredible ability to create opportunities for himself. Most of all, I'm proud to be his sister.
* * Enter to win a hardcover copy of Imperfect at The Children's Book Review. * *
Rebekah Hoeft, Donna JT Smith, Dianne Moritz, and Rosi Hollinbeck. Linda Mitchell, Linda Baie, and Jone Rush MacCulloch share poems today at their own blogs. Don't forget to leave your window poem on our May 2018 padlet!
Sloth Reads, along with a fabulous review and giveaway of I'm Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris and illustrated by Lane Smith. (Yep. The same award-winning Lane Smith who illustrated this month's DMC featured book: a house that once was!)