The Story of S.: Teaching Poetry to Children with Disabilities

Nicole Hefner and one of her students

Commentary by Nicole Hefner, Teaching Artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and Language Lecturer at New York University

For the past decade I’ve taught poetry to children with moderate to severe learning and mental disabilities in the New York Public Schools. Spring after spring, armed with little more than a bottle of water and a healthy stash of yellow #2’s, I’ve entered the classroom. My work with these students has never stopped satisfying me on the truest and deepest levels. I visit; we write poems (almost always through dictation) and then the students trace, squiggle or have the help of hand-over-hand with a paraprofessional or teacher onto their own paper, making the poem more fully their own. At the end of the term, the poems are compiled and distributed in an anthology; cake is eaten and we wish our summer farewells, bidding all goodness until spring—and poetry!—comes again.

This past May, however, my heart broke a little. I should say I’ve been at one particular school in Staten Island for all of my teaching artist years. My relationship with the staff is extremely rewarding, matched only by my relationship with the students. One particular young woman, I’ll call her S., now 20 (students remain in New York’s special education system until they’re 21), has been in my class for five of the past six years, and so, I was especially happy to see her when I walked into her third floor classroom. Ms. Poetry, another student yelled, and although S. did look up at me she did so with little recognition. After a bit, she broke into a smile. Oh, she said with an overly dramatic hit to her forehead. Now I remember you.

But I could tell she didn’t. Not at first, anyway, and then only in pieces. I was okay with that; maybe I looked different, I reasoned, and hmm, I thought to myself, I did seem to remember her having trouble with vision. But poetry! I said (surely too loudly). Of course, you remember poetry! There were other students in the room who I’d also taught for a number of years. I looked around at the silence. I said again. Langston Hughes? Dreams? For the love of cake, somebody’s got to remember poetry. I smiled and looked at the teacher who shrugged sympathetically. S? I said (at this point I was flapping birdlike and pacing the linoleum). You know poetry. We do it every spring. You love it.

Again, the gesture: the palm to the forehead. Oh, now I remember, she said.

The light through the high windows held the dust in the air, and we moved on; we had to. There was only just enough time to get a poem written. At the end of our spring together, the poems were as beautiful and powerful as they have been in past years, and, yes, S. seemed to love poetry every bit as much as she always had, but I had changed.

When I first started teaching children with disabilities, I had a conversation in the school cafeteria with a teacher who was a thirty-year veteran. You have to change all of your expectations, she told me. Maybe, she said and pointed in the direction of a nonverbal 19 year-old, huge and burly and wild-eyed, who sat rocking and chewing on his hand as those with autism sometimes do to feel the stimulation. Maybe, today, he will hold a pencil in his hand. Maybe, he won’t. You have to love them for what they can do; you have to get them to do what they can do.

I fear sometimes in the quest of being dynamic teaching artists we get so wrapped up in the art that we forget how real the students are. Our final products with their perfect-bound spines and their color covers may sit untouched on bookshelves for years as the very students who created them can’t even read them. So intent are we on guiding the students to compose wildly imaginative poems and funky abstract paintings, we neglect their pain and frustration; we overlook their illness. Perhaps—and this may sound extreme—we go so far as to de-humanize them in the service of art.

But maybe that’s the only way to do it. In buildings filled with nurses and wheelchairs, physical therapists and defibrillators, maybe it’s best that I not know if S.’s cognitive abilities are slipping or if they will continue to slip. Maybe, all I can bring is the poetry and bring it how I’ve always brought it: in the moment, in the lovely, wild moment of connection that those spring afternoons grant us.

I’m reminded, finally, of a story Brad Lewis told the other night as we sat in on a round-table discussion about health and wellness with a group of NYU students—all of whom, brimming over with newly-discovered knowledge and wild hope for the future, are right around S.’s age. The story was of the Buddhist monk and the goblet. “You see this goblet?” The Buddhist said. “For me, it is already broken,” and he lifted it to the sky and, then he drank from it. I imagine the water was sweet and cold but even if it was bitter I am certain that it was exactly what he needed.

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