How to deal with aggression-or not.
On my way from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, on a congested two-lane segment of the highway, a man in a gold Audi suddenly whipped around me to just a few feet between me and the car in front and gave me the finger. Then he continued to zoom in and out of traffic like a maniac.
I’d been on the highway a couple of days earlier, driving in the opposite direction, with a car sitting dangerously on my tail in an equally congested two-lane line of traffic. Looking in the rear view mirror, I flapped my hand to indicate that he should back off. He leaned forward and shook his head from side to side in an exaggerated manner and continued to hug my bumper. I waved my phone, pretending I was taking a picture, pretty pathetic, and which made no difference until he finally disappeared onto a ramp off the highway. A few miles later, a jeep appeared in my rear view mirror looking like it wanted to drive right through me.
“Back off!” I blurted, again flapping my hand.
The driver threw up her arms and waved them around like I was crazy, laughing uproariously with her friends sitting up front with her.
Now as I continued north, fuming at being given the finger and almost driven into, I stopped off in Petaluma, a town about halfway to Santa Rosa, to meet my partner for lunch. Unusually for a Friday afternoon, several seats sat vacant at a long family-style table at the café. A cheerful wavy-haired waitress showed me to a seat. After setting a place for me, she set one for my partner across the table with a second set of silverware, glass of water and menu. As I waited for my partner to appear, I read an article on my phone.
Suddenly an old woman (older than us as my sister and I like to joke), accompanied by a middle-aged woman looking like her daughter, took my partner’s seat and started perusing the menu placed there for my partner while her daughter headed for the restroom.
I leaned forward and said politely, “I’m sorry, someone’s sitting there.” I grew up in Britain so many of my sentences often start with I’m sorry. My therapist only allows me to say it once per session.
The woman didn’t look up from the menu. I said it again, same result. I amplified my voice and repeated myself. A diner on her left, kitty-corner to me and noticeably missing the help gene, silently observed me trying to get the woman’s attention.
I leaned forward across the table and said it again, louder. Finally, the woman looked up.
“I’m sorry," I said for the fifth time, “someone is sitting there.”
“Someone’s sitting here?” she repeated with a blank expression.
“Yes,” I said.
She looked around and then back at me, quizzically. She didn’t move.
I pointed to the glass of water. “Look, you can see even the water is here. Someone’s sitting there.”
“I already heard you,” she said flatly. She slowly shifted to the empty seat on her right. Her daughter, who’d returned and was standing at the corner of the table, glared at me and twisted around to look at my partner’s empty seat.
Finally, my partner arrived with her normal ebullience, cell phone in one hand, overstuffed handbag slung over her shoulder. After going to the restroom, she arrived back at the table. I showed her the seat saved for her.
“I don’t want to sit there,” she said and sat herself down next to me.
Both the old woman and her daughter pointedly glared at the now empty seat and for the rest of the meal they kept twisting around to stare irately at it.
When we were done eating, my partner accompanied me in my car, leaving hers in parking space outside, and we drove around the corner in a line of traffic to the main shopping street. Without warning, the car in front started backing up. The last time someone in front of me backed up without seeing me, I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in San Francisco back in the late 1990s; the car had slammed into me and destroyed the hood and front bumper. In a daze, I’d got out and said to the driver, who’d also got out of his car, “I just got diagnosed with breast cancer, I can’t take this.” And the man replied, “I’ve got AIDS and I can’t either.” We both laughed in dismayed disbelief. In those days, a truly San Francisco moment.
But here I was in a small town post-Trump and nobody was laughing. I honked my horn to alert the driver of my presence. He and a woman obviously his wife turned into animated angry puppets, the wife’s face spinning around to give me the evil eye.
“That’s it,” I said, now completely fed up with all the bad behavior. “I’m going to say something.”
“I’m getting out of the car,” my partner said, never one to invite confrontation, and did just that. “Call me when you’re done.”
I pulled over to the side of the road. After the couple had parked and were getting out of their car and could hear me, I called over with forced calm, “I was honking so you’d know I was behind you.”
The couple nodded and waved their hands at me in a friendly way, but had obviously not been brought up in Britain.
I continued on my journey north along Kentucky Street, jumping in alarm as a truck zoomed crookedly past me. A woman screamed out of the window, “You fucking asshole” and other words to that effect all the way to the traffic light until she disappeared around the corner.
So how to deal with aggression? I pulled over and parked, then burst into tears.
Last year I did some substitute teaching in the public school district to add to my retirement credits after I quit teaching in a charter school in the county jail. One day I was on assignment in a kindergarten class. It was at an elementary school at the very end of a block in an area of San Francisco where many of my jail students live when they’re out, barring parole conditions, and where they were raised. Some of them were likely to have gone to the same school and probably had children there now.
The kindergarten teacher was having a great deal of difficulty controlling her students, so I was assigned to assist her. In the morning, I worked with one group after another at their tables as they struggled through their basic reading assignments while she attempted to counsel a group of three or four children who couldn’t sit still long enough to do any work.
After recess, a little boy, no more than six years old, came hopping back into the classroom on one leg.
“My leg is broken! My leg is broken!” he cried.
“Let me look at it,” I said, concerned.
He pointed to the middle of his shin, tears running down his face.
“Wait here,” I said. “I’ll go get the nurse.”
The teacher was too preoccupied to notice as she tried to corral the other children to sit quietly on the rug facing the white board. On the left side of the board she had pasted a large poster on which was a ladder with the colors yellow, orange, and red to denote gradations of bad behavior. In between loudly calling the names of children who weren’t listening, the teacher, clearly out of her league, scribbled the names of the offenders on the lower rungs.
In the office, I told the secretary about the boy and asked to see the nurse. She barely looked up, flapping her hand dismissively. “He walked into the office after recess so it’s obviously not broken.”
I went back into the classroom and sat with the boy, who was still crying. “Show me where your leg is broken.”
He rolled up the right leg of his jeans and pointed to his shin.
An idea popped into my head. “Listen,” I said, “I’m going to get some magic ointment. That should make it feel better.”
He looked at me doubtfully, wide-eyed through his tears. I rummaged through a stack of papers and books near the sink next to the back window, searching for anything that would do. A bottle of hand sanitizer emerged. I tore off a piece of brown paper towel and pumped a little onto it.
“Here,” I said, handing it to him. “Let’s rub this on.”
He looked at it quizzically, his sobs suddenly still.
“That’s hand sanitizer,” he blurted distrustfully.
“Yes, but there’s magic in it,” I said authoritatively. “Come on, let’s rub it on your leg.”
He reluctantly took the paper towel from me and, with long strokes, rubbed the ointment into his skin. Then he looked up and said, “It’s still broken.”
I thought fast. “Put your hands over your heart and fill them with love.”
“What?” as if to say, “You’re crazy, lady.”
I repeated, “Put your hands over your heart and fill them with love.” I placed his hands, palms downwards, on his chest. “Now breathe in all the love you’ve got in there.”
He looked at me questioningly, but obediently closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Now place your hands on your leg and give it love,” I instructed. “That will heal it.”
With great seriousness, he placed his palms on his leg with his eyes closed and breathed in and out a few times.
“Is it feeling better?”
“Okay, now off you go back to your desk.”
The boy hopped on one leg toward his desk and banged into the edge of a console piled with books.
“Ow!” he cried, grabbing his arm. “My arm is broken!”
Trying not to laugh, I went for some more hand sanitizer. We followed the same procedure as before, but now on his arm. This time I didn’t have to tell him to heal himself with love; he placed his hands on his heart and his arm automatically, with a dedicated expression on his face.
At the end of the day, after all the children had left the classroom, the boy came back in while I was chatting with the paraprofessional. She was an elderly woman with years of experience at the school and had joined the class for the afternoon to individually tutor children on their literacy and math skills.
“Call your grandfather,” she reminded him.
The boy rummaged in his pale blue backpack stained with dirt and pulled out a cell phone.
“Grandpa, come and get me,” he called loudly into the phone and then, the little man that he was, went outside to wait with the teacher who was on yard duty.
“Does his grandfather normally pick him up?” I asked.
The paraprofessional turned to continue putting away her folders.
“His mother was arrested last night,” she said matter-of-factly. “The police turned up at their house last night and took her away.”
If I wore hats, I would take them all off to Kenneth Koch for his inspiring writing prompts for teaching children poetry that allow them to express their hidden anxieties and desires. And when the normal school constraints on behavior are lifted, poetry can help children find themselves.
I’ve recently been teaching fourth and fifth grade classes at an elementary school in an area of San Francisco that has the most confusing topography, with circular streets that don’t make any sense. When I manage to find the school, hot and bothered most weeks because, between trying to rely on GPS that doesn’t know where I am and my lack of any sense or direction, I arrive just in the nick of time. But I’m going to keep finding my way there as long as I can, even to the classrooms that are pretty much out of control. There, the children are full of beans, unruly half the time as they flirt outrageously with each other, and sometimes make me laugh so much with their antics that they manage to completely derail whatever lesson I’ve planned for them.
One of the groups I’ve been working with is the polar opposite. They volunteer in their lunch break to be in a poetry club set up by the school librarian, a woman who radiates warmth and a profound love of books that sets the perfect environment for teaching poetry. The poetry club is made up of seven girls who, the librarian told me, take advantage of the poetry club she set up to give them a chance to escape the noise and behavior of the playground.
In one session, as I often do with all elementary school children, I had the children read a poem from the “I Wish” section of Koch’s “Wishes, Lies and Dreams”. I then instructed them to write their own poems on what they wished for. We only have twenty to twenty-five minutes together as the children need to have enough time to eat their lunches and no food is allowed in the library. This means no time for the usual discussion period that I include in longer class periods.
One round-faced fourth-grader, no more than ten years old, whom I’ll call Stella, wandered around the library after the others had started writing their poems, looking at the display copies of books scattered here and there on the top of the low bookcases. She had an absorbed expression on her face as she lifted one, rearranged it on the shelf, and then put it back in its original display, completely focused on her task.
When I was ten and in a public library on a lonely, solitary afternoon, I knelt on the floor and, thinking I was performing a useful public service, pushed books into the back edge of shelves to make them look neater. The librarian caught me and whisper-yelled at me, what did I think I was doing, and as I flushed in humiliation, pushed me aside to pull them all out again. I stood back and didn’t say anything to Stella, and finally she sat down and began to write.
It was time for the students to read out their poems and I asked for volunteers. Stella was first to put up her hand. She began with wanting to be legendary and followed that with I wish I wasn’t me. She then wrote that she wished to be smart and not so loving. Her next line was I wish I was loved. She ended her poem:
I wish I don’t have to hide back the insecurity that I own.
I wish I weren’t in the shadows that hide back my truth
I wish people would know me and love me for who I am.
I wish I didn’t hide myself every day.
I wish I didn’t say things that aren’t too nice.
But hiding my self doesn’t help.
Thank you for checking out our blog. We'll be posting news of what we've been kicking up in our rodeo, including our writing programs and working with multi-generational writers. Our co-founder Margo Perin is excited to post her experience of working with fourth graders in her residency through California Poets in the Schools at a San Francisco elementary school, during which children experiencing trauma begin to find their voice through poetry.
Last week I taught poetry to fourth graders in what is euphemistically called an "urban environment." The topic was “Wishes”, based on Kenneth Koch’s wonderful Wishes, Lies and Dreams. After a few of the children volunteered to read out lines from a sample of poems from the book, I asked them to call out what they wished for this year. The prompt was not just wishes for themselves, but also their families, their community or neighborhood, and the country and world.
The kids began with personal wishes, which I wrote on the board:
I wish I had lots of money
I wish it was my birthday everyday so I could get presents
I wish I didn’t have homework
I wish I was in a professional soccer team
I wish I was as fast as a cheetah
I reminded the kids to think what they wished for their families, community or neighborhood, and the world.
I wish the next door neighbors would stop banging on the wall and shouting
I wish people wouldn’t get shot
I wish the police would stop shooting black people
I wish ISIS would stop going to other countries
I wish guns weren’t invented
A little boy with bright eyes called out, “I wish I could see my brother.”
Where is he?” I asked.
“What would you bring him?”
“I don’t know.”
He smiled shyly, uncertain.
“How about a big smile?”
He nodded vigorously, and I added that to his line on the board.
The children went to their seats and began writing. A girl with an intense stare folded her arms angrily, upset that the last poem read aloud ran out after she’d read only two lines. I sat with her and tried to coax her to write, but she refused. Sleep encrusted her eyelashes and around her mouth; it looked like her face hadn’t been washed for several days.
I handed her the Koch book and she read a couple more poems on wishes.
“Do you feel inspired yet?” I asked.
She shook her head sullenly.
“I’ve been telling everyone what an incredible reader you are,” I said. “I remember from the first day I came to teach here I was so impressed as I’m not used to seeing kids read as well as you do. You’re also a terrific writer.”
“You’re lying,” she said.
I put my face close to hers. “Do I look like the kind of person who would lie?”
She glanced away, unsure.
“Who did you tell?” she asked.
“My partner, my friends, and even teachers.”
She said, “What are their names?”
I thought fast. “Marci, Carmen, Sally …”
“Sally?” she interrupted. “Is she tall and skinny?”
“No,” I answered, forgetting to check my what’s-okay-to-say-o-meter. “She’s short and fat.”
She looked surprised, like I had sworn.
“I told you I don’t lie,” I said. I paused, then said reflectively, “You’re a fighter, aren’t you. Are you a fighter?”
She looked surprised, recognized, and nodded.
“I am, too,” I said.
Her eyebrows raised. “How are you a fighter?”
I told her I’d just been to a music jam and how the men there acted mean, and they always did that to women musicians. I taught her the word sexism that even in a progressive school she hadn’t heard yet. Again forgetting to check my meter, I told her one of the men tried to stop me playing.
“I told him he had no right to say that,” I said, “and I said it in an angry way.” I told her that he had walked off the stage in a huff and so I played and ended up having a good time.
We were both silent for a moment, then I said, “You only have to write two lines.”
I walked away to help other kids. When I came back she had cast her paper aside. There were two lines of poetry on it.
“Great,” I said. “Can you add some more?’
“You said I only had to write two lines,” she argued.
“Well, I’m going to push you,” I said. “That’s my job as a teacher.” I looked again at the lines.
I wish I didn’t have to go to school
I wish I was with my sister
“Where’s your sister?”
She looked over at me. “School,” she said disdainfully, like I should already know.
“What’s she doing at school?”
“What’s she doing?”
She rolled her eyes. “Drama.”
“What’s she doing in her drama class?” I insisted.
“Making costumes,” she said.
“Okay, add that.” Then I said, “Okay, now write some more wishes.”
I went off again and when I came back she had filled half a page. I didn’t have time to look at it but said well done. It was time for the kids to come back together to share their poems.
“Do you want to read your poem aloud?”
“No,” she said vehemently.
But when the kids began to share, she asked one of the girls to read hers out.
Her lines had been crossed out and replaced with:
I wish I was with
my sister in heaven and was
able to come back down