165. Rites of Passage: Sharon Olds

My files are officially confused.

Much of what I created in my early career was on paper; computer printouts literally cut-and-pasted exactly how I wanted them, then photocopied, originals put into manilla folders with some of those copies. I took notes and backward designed units on yellow legal pads when I was supposed to be listening in meetings, neatly folding those pages and putting them in other manilla folders. All of this was then placed in hanging files, with handwritten slips slid into plastic tabs, all of which followed me from school to school, program to program, until I landed a permanent job at my current school.

We are on a two year cycle, so I only crack a drawer every once-in-awhile. Some files miss a cycle, as a skip this book for that, or forget to use a poem. In many of my poetry files are overheads. I am too thrifty and nostalgic to throw them away, even as our supply of projectors has dwindled in the face of LCDs and Smartboards. I keep thinking I might need them, and part of me wants to drag out the projector.  Those files created long ago–files of books read by seniors in high school which my students would never get, much less enjoy–I hang onto because they represents my creation at one point. And I occasionally think of returning to the high school level, even though I was enjoy it for exactly one day.  So, even though these files never see use, I have them.

Hey, you never know.

And now, so many of my documents are electronic. Kids change. My curriculum changes. I tweak.  Now, I call up old electronic documents and tamper with them on a screen. No need to pull the paper file. No cut nor paste in real space.  I even print, when I print (I sometimes email them as attachments, leave links on my webpage, or share them as Google Docs), I print them straight to the copier from my desktop.

But sometimes I need my notes. This week I began “Dead Poets’ Society” and I needed my notes from… before there was a Wikipedia page that had much of the same information. A folded yellow legal paper has names and quotes and poems used and everything I could get online, but at one point, long before middle school, I took notes and infused them with meaning. I needed them now.

They were nowhere to be found.

In the back of my Language Arts drawer, behind the hanging files for “Big Mouth and Ugly Girl” and a dozen poems, was Sharon Olds’ “Rite of Passage”.

When did I use this? I asked myself.  I pulled it out.

My older son is nine, and his recent encounters with other nine-year-old children reminds me of Jerry Spinelli’s book “Wringer”. I hate that book. Brutal.  Couldn’t get into it, but the first chapter when his “friends” come in for his birthday party…. Oh, God, as a parent I hate it and I can’t read it because it is so raw. And this poem is more of it.

Too good.

You can find Olds reading it herself here.

Sharon Olds reads “Rite of Passage”

Here is a class project, mixing student reading with images. They read a bit fast, but perhaps your students will be inspired.

Rites of Passage

Do your students agree with the images? What others might they choose?

As for the poem itself, I like to talk about the perspective. How do kids talk about things with other kids? What is maturity? Do we grow out of these ideas, and do ideas such as “killing” have any value? Freewrite!

Let me recommend the first half of “Raising Cain”. When I had my first son, everyone gave me this and “Real Boys” as a “gift”. I did not like either, but the DVD of “Raising Cain” is actually quite good. My students are really interested in it, especially the girls. Here’s a link to see it, but I bought the DVD myself.

Raising Cain PBS

Rites of Passage
Sharon Olds

As the guests arrive at my son’s party
they gather in the living room–
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? Six. I’m seven. So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their throats
a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the dark cake, round and heavy as a
turret, behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.


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