176. Touring the Doll Hospital: Amy Gerstler

Buy Me!

Wrapped up in the end-of-the-year hullabaloo I feel haunted by the sense of unfinished students leaving. This group can write and read and will be as successful as any other class–perhaps more–but I worry about them more than I’ve worried about students in the past.

Maybe it’s me.

I do feel more sensitive this year. Each year I find myself worrying more about student’s personal development than their academic, which may be my getting older. Perhaps it is my own son inching towards middle school; he is finishing fourth grade on Thursday.  Regardless the reason, articles like this strike me:

A Warning to Teenagers Before They Start Dating: A diverse group is trying to forestall dating violence by addressing middle schoolers to educate them about relationships before they start dating in earnest. 

Our community is diverse in terms of social class. That not only leads to the issues found in poverty, with poor role modeling and dating that spans many years between partners. Just as troublesome are the wealthy kids who have access to money drugs and enough arrogance to make really dumb mistakes in the privacy of their secluded homes while their parents are away for the whole weekend. I would be a fool to believe they are all innocent and it leaves me with a feeling of things undone.

In looking for a poem on abuse, I was amazed at how few there were. More troubling was how many love poems came up–I had not typed in the word. For example, the third search item for the term “classic poem abusive relationship” was Percy Bysshe Shelly’s “Love’s Philosophy“. A wonderful poem, but the type of idealized love that excuses abuse as the exception to the dramatic emotion that is true love.

Cue “Twilight” discussion here (brooding, rage-filled older boy with secrets that obsesses and stalks “true” love object).  My slideshow on the Byronic Hero can be found here (ignore the first slide on Watership Down).  Romantic, but, in the end, what’s the message?  We need to teach the difference between “drama” and real love.

Eventually I found a poem that is about healing.  Gerstler is a jumping off point to a larger discussion.  I mentioned my son finishing out his fourth grade year–he’s had a rough time of it, as some bullying has gone on.  Fortunately, he’s not quite in this shape.  Kids are resilient.  I comfort myself that our school is a doll hospital, and perhaps a step above.

A nice prompt might be: Who are you in the Doll Hospital?  When they choose based on surface reasons (I’m the soldier!), talk about the abuse each receives.  More important: Why?  We play with our toys in a way that seems appropriate to us and to the object.  This can be followed by a discussion of what toys they have now and how they treat them.  If you’re comfortable with it, a discussion about pets, friends and even partners can follow.

A Note: I believe these topics are at the heart of middle school and art.  It’s why we read and write.  That said, an integrated curriculum can involve health and guidance teachers, plus administrators and counselors.  Many are waiting to be included in meaningful discussions.  This is a good chance to do something beyond A, B, A, B rhyme schemes.

Touring the Doll Hospital
Amy Gerstler

Why so many senseless injuries? This one’s glass teeth
knocked out. Eyes missing, or stuck open or closed.
Limbs torn away. Sawdust dribbles onto the floor
like an hourglass running out. Fingerless hands, noses
chipped or bitten off. Many are bald or burnt. Some,
we learn, are victims of torture or amateur surgery.
Do dolls invite abuse, with their dent-able heads,
those tight little painted-on or stitched-in grins?
Hurt me, big botched being, they whine in a dialect
only puritans and the frequently punished can hear.
It’s what I was born for. I know my tiny white pantaloons
and sheer underskirts incite violation. Criers and crib-
wetters pursue us in dreams, till we wake sweat-
drenched but unrepentant, glad to have the order
by which we lord over them restored. Small soldiers
with no Geneva Conventions to protect them,
they endure gnawing, being drooled on, banishment
to attics. Stained by cough syrup, hot cocoa, and pee,
these “clean gallant souls” wear their wounds as martyrs’
garments. We owe them everything. How they suffer
for our sins, “splintered, bursted, crumbled . . .”
Every bed in the head replacement ward is occupied tonight.
Let’s sit by the legless Queen doll’s tiny wheelchair
and read to her awhile if she wishes it. In a faint
voice she requests a thimbleful of strong dark tea.


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