Reflections on the Poetry Competition and Teaching

I strongly believe that one of the things that makes teaching such a challenging profession is that many of us adopt our students. Of course, this doesn’t happen legally, but I can assure you that it happens emotionally. I teach because I care about the success of your daughter. I am always telling them that I will never ask for them to do more than their best, since many girls are afraid they will fail a class even if they do their best work. They frequently believe that their best will not be good enough. From an outsider’s perspective, I’m sure it often seems I only want her to be able to write an effective analytical essay, but the reason I want her to write effectively is because I want her to thrive in life, get a good job, and become a happy, strong, successful individual. It would be great if, years down the road, they sent us a holiday letter and a wedding invitation to let us know how they’re doing, but we know better than to expect it.

I got a firsthand lesson in the emotional ride of being a teacher when one of our girls went to the State Finals for Poetry Out Loud. We drove to Helena on Friday afternoon and spent the evening practicing the poems, finalizing outfits for the event, indulging in a Chinese Buffet for dinner (which, as it turns out, was not as good an idea as it seemed), and inventing the sport of underwater ballet (look for it in the next Olympics!). The next morning we rose early to get to the venue in plenty of time.

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The Myrna Loy is a theater in the state capital. There is ample seating for a large audience and the stadium seating ensures that everyone gets a perfect view of the stage. There is a pit for an orchestra, great sound and lighting options, and a lobby area selling food and drinks. They’ve done a wonderful job with it, especially considering the building got its start as the jail. The architecture is definitely… “alternative,” and the dungeon-esque feel is exacerbated by the fact that to get to the restroom, one must wind their way through a narrow labyrinth to the basement, surrounded by the cold sarsens originally intended to make their guests feel despairingly confined. I loved it.

I’m not sure that our student was as nervous about the competition as I was; I made sure to direct her to use the restroom before the event got started, get up on stage and practice adjusting the height of the microphone, test out the various shoe options she had brought, and rehearse the introductions to her pieces. After all, there was a lot riding on this performance and I know how much pressure teens can feel to succeed. I wanted to ensure this experience ran as smoothly as possible so she had the best shot at winning the trip to Washington, D.C. to compete in the National Finals. She accepted my pointers and suggestions, but was honestly more interested in socializing with her peers.

The first few rounds went very well. I was proud of how well the poems went, but couldn’t help wondering if they would be good enough. I knew that if we could get into the final round of the day, we’d be able to win. Her final poem was a secret weapon capable of destroying even the most formidable of her opponents… we just needed the opportunity for her to recite it. I hardly remember lunch, I was so focused on my nerves. As much as I wanted her to succeed, I wanted to protect her from failing. I knew that the ride home would be devastating if we had to make it knowing she hadn’t won. I knew that she would be emotionally crushed if she wasn’t the best. I knew that there would be tears and heartache and feelings of inadequacy that my words would not be able to soothe away. I wanted to protect her from feeling those things… I wanted her to be happy.

I locked my eyes on the back of her head as they announced the finalists after lunch, and was utterly deflated when her name was not on the list. I knew she had done her best and I was sure she would be devastated. When she turned in her seat to make eye contact with me, she shrugged and turned back to watch the final round. We listened to the finalists recite their poetry and watched as the winner was announced. When the day was finally over and I had an opportunity to talk to our girl again, I learned so much about being a surrogate parent.

She was sad to have not won, but she was not devastated. She was not emotionally crushed. There were no tears or heartache or feelings of inadequacy. She was happy to have gone as far as the State level of competition, and to have had time to interact with peers from other schools around Montana. She had eaten terrible Chinese food, she had painted her nails, and she had practiced ballet underwater. She had seen hundreds of miles of our beautiful state and taken a picture in front of a gigantic plaster roadside attraction cow. She knew that she had done her best and that she had been beaten, and she was okay with that. I was so focused on protecting her from failure that I forgot how strong she was. Sometimes, we have to trust that they know their best will be good enough.

-Krysten, English Teacher