College Counselor and English teacher Debi Ellman reflects on the highlight of her summer: taking a poetry workshop taught by fellow BCDS teacher Matthew Lippman. One of her poems is published at the end of her reflection.
At the opening faculty meeting each year, we circle around the room introducing ourselves, mentioning our number of years at Beaver, sharing highlights (preferably brief and funny) about the summer. This process always takes too long, but I enjoy listening to the stories, most of all Bea Kleppner’s, who’s been attending our back-to-school meetings for fifty-one years and always gets a laugh lasting longer than her tenure. I dread my turn, no moments rising to the top, none timed to crack a smile. However this fall (my twenty-fifth if anyone’s interested), I had my highlight ready—five pages tucked in my briefcase, poems, labored and loved, throughout the summer, written under the tutelage of my English department colleague Matt Lippman who joined our faculty last year.
Throughout last fall I’d overheard students laughing as they left Matt’s classroom. By winter, I’d watched videos of their essay recitals, and in the spring I had read gushing reviews of Mr. Lippman on juniors’ college questionnaires. In June when he e-mailed asking if I knew anyone who might be interested in taking an online course with him this summer, I decided to sign up myself.
Each week Matt e-mailed me a “mini lecture” focused on the works of one or two poets, offering his thoughts about their poems and his reflections on the art of poetry. At the end of every e-mail he gave me an assignment, a poem to write for the following week, one that he promised to critique. While I enjoyed the first lecture and the insights and wisdom he offered, what had initially seemed a good idea felt burdensome as I faced my first assignment—a work poem. For a week, I felt the pressure of a student—homework pending, the stress of wanting to impress, the fear of having nothing meaningful to offer. Although I thought of quitting, I finally came up with a work poem (of sorts) and in the weeks that followed five other pieces to satisfy the requirements.
During my weeks of study (with extensions taken along the way), I learned from my colleague not just about poetry, but about the art of teaching. Matt paid attention to my words, validated my intentions, offered constructive feedback. In the works he shared, he exposed me to other approaches and ways of seeing, while celebrating my voice. He also helped me to dispose of biases I hold about technology—that it interferes with rather than enhances genuine learning. In our e-mail lessons I had the undivided attention of my teacher; I had the power to communicate, revise with ease, to research what I needed in a mini-second.
“Working with Matt Lippman was the highlight of my summer,” I announced at the faculty meeting. Although I didn’t get a single laugh, I knew my voice, my words, mattered—the heart of poetry.
Debi Ellman’s “work poem”:
In my house
work was done by maids.
The white table in the breakfast room
always set for four.
No place for Eula Buyers
who lived with us the longest.
Like nuns that slept next door,
she wore her habit
parchment uniform, white orthopedic shoes,
black beehive hair that formed a hood.
Her saffron oils filled our kitchen
chickens chopped and dredged
shocked into the skillet.
I dodged the sting of grease
behind her apron.
On Friday nights
my parents left me
watching Perry Mason reruns.
Sitting on the orange sofa in the den,
I nested my head on Eula’s thigh.