Do You Really Think So?

Quiz Question 8th grade: What is the line Atticus Finch uses in To Kill a Mockingbird when he knows he’s got you beat, and he’s about to prove it to you?

Answer:  see title of this blog post. 


I had to throw my final unit plans for this school year out the window, when Gabe, a young man in my “Poe” Language Arts class, put it on the line. We’d gotten into a deep discussion about rules, authority, laws, truth, justice. He hadn’t spoken much, and I pointedly asked his opinion about something (forgetting now what it was, even – but I think it was something along the lines of “tell me about your school experience this year”) when a flush came into his cheeks.

He wouldn’t make eye contact. He was intently studying something in the design of the floor tile near his desk. I could barely hear him when he said “Mrs Hamlin, school’s okay, but we NEVER get to speak our minds.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m asking you to speak it right now!”

“No, you’re not,” he said, “you’re asking me to tell you what you want to hear, that school prepares us to speak our minds later. I mean, we don’t get to speak them as they are now.” 

The kid would have surprised me less if he’d dropped to the floor and given me a choreographed dance to Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing” wearing a leotard and combat boots.

Gabe isn’t shy. He’s smart as a whip, quick-witted and funny. But he’s been disengaged often this year — and in the three seconds after he said that to me, like cogs in a giant wheel, all the times I’ve wondered why he’s seemed so vacant or why he’s somewhere else in his mind, fit together perfectly. It was like fitting the last piece into a thousand-piece puzzle of a monochromatic beach. Very satisfying – and then, when you stand back and look – quite beautiful.

“Do you really think so?” I said, all Atticus Finch.

Except unlike Atticus, who always seems to know precisely what he’s doing and saying, I actually spent the next three weeks pretending I’d known what was coming all along — because what I said then was, “then welcome to the Slam Poetry unit.”

In case you haven’t discovered Button Poetry or Get Lit, you should know: Slam poetry is nothing short of setting the world on fire. It’s art that goes deep inside, figures out the complicated landscape created by feelings and experience, then comes out again as words that reach out and grab you by the throat. Sometimes they rhyme.

I had never written or performed a slam poem when I boldly announced the new work that would take us through the end of our school year. I just went for it.

People wonder what it is teenagers think and dream about these days, what they would say if given a microphone and 3 minutes of undivided attention in which to say it. Here are some excerpts from their work.

I see, want this to be, the science generation/ I see, our planet needs, energy alternation/But instead, we are fed, peer pressure and conformity/And apparently/It is insulting to be nerdy/Thank you for calling me nerd/I am encouraged, I am not hurt/When people say I’m intelligent and acknowledge it/One day I’ll help save this generation — Julian

I know what stress is like/it’s the dark locked up cage inside of you/it’s the restraints for your brain/the cuts and marks on sections of body/it’s quicksand/a black cloak around your body/a black hole just for you — Marley

We’re expected to have this perfect life/But you can’t attract too much attention because/then you are a try-hard, and for some reason trying is a bad thing — Gwen

Thank you, bully/For pulling that chair out from under me/Thank you for calling me ugly, for staring, for laughing/That made me feel a whole lot better about myself/Now I can’t take a stroll without feeling a hole in my soul where you’re sold on the fact that I’m not the perfect key for the keyhole/Feels like everyone’s watching me on parole/Now I’m always on patrol/You can’t control how I unfold my goals/The role you play in my whole life is an ant on a hill in front of my garage/You’re getting yourself nowhere — Kate K

I think about it/Try and concentrate/I agree with this and not that/But if I agree with that I have to agree with that/And what about them and they?/I try to contemplate/The world isn’t just black or white/Sweet or sour/I can’t write about a problem I think is both wrong/And right. — Eden

Anxiety feels like you’re alone in a dark room/Eyes sketched on the walls all sear into you — Tiana

When trying to fit in you’re a pretzel/Turning and twisting yourself to be someone else/You lose yourself/Your sense of you/There is space for everyone — Shauna

Look at them/Call them by the gender they wish to be/The gender they truly are/Since birth, you have been assigned/One gender or the other/Pink and yellow, blue and red/The colors of who you are supposed to be/It doesn’t matter who you actually are/This/Or that/Or he/Or she/Or them/Love one way/It isn’t working — Kate U

It is hard not to be brutal in such a brutal world — Ryan

Moonlight Sonata and Mona Lisa/And other achievements galore/Were invented/Created/Discovered/By people who chose to study not less/But more — Nate

Divorce/It has no remorse/Pushing you ’til you start crying/About all the fighting, all the lying/It’s so unsatisfying/When you flirt with that woman over there/It’s like you don’t even care/You know this is just leading to another affair/You used to be the perfect pair/But now you’d rather be elsewhere/This keeps me awake at night/It makes my heart ache/Heartbreak/It makes my whole world shake/Like a never ending earthquake/Do you remember our devotions?/Do you still care about our emotions?/I feel like I’m drowning in the deepest of oceans/Remember those vows? They weren’t temporary/This is scary/It’s like you didn’t even know what getting married/really was/It’s not something you just wash down the drain/It’s not something you suffer through – like agonizing pain/Not for passing blame or gaining fame/Remember, you gave this family its last name. — Kaleb

We spent three weeks watching slam poets perform, then writing and drafting our own work, and finally performing our original poems (yup, I had to write one, too) in our classroom. We built a stage with white lights and sheets draped behind. We had cafe tables, white linens, flowers and cafe fare as we watched and encouraged each other – just like an open mic night.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I do not despair about teenagers in the world. I work every day with young minds full of wonder, critical thought and deep reflection. I despair only when they aren’t heard. Entrenched in the daily grind of school, I hadn’t been really listening, and Gabe helped me to tune in. I’m so glad I did. Because as Atticus says, you never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 

The cool thing about teenagers is that we’ve all been there. We can both understand them and listen to them anew as they make their way. After all, to not do so would be like killing a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?


His Eyes

So many good things about June. It’s the farm share full of just plain delicious greens I get before the myriad farmer’s market offerings at the height of summer. All that possibility. All that hope – stretched out before me; a vast display of fortuity and happenstance. Bring it on.

With it’s usual delight, this June also brings with it a basket of bittersweet fruit. My son Garrett is graduating high school in a week. I can’t write that sentence without tearing up – which is for many reasons, not the least of which is that every time I look at him these days I see the little boy he was, all whirling dervish, all heart.

He has changed, this remarkable creature, as children do.

His mind has changed. He holds opinions he can substantiate, in a calm conversation, all the while listening intently to another side. He’s thoughtful, and interested in other people, in what they think, need, want and dream about. If life were a psychedelic drug (and who says it isn’t) he’d be flying high with curiosity – the kind achieved when one gets outside of his personal experience and thinks about things from other perspectives.

His interests and goals have changed. He has surprised us with where he has chosen to go to school (UMaine), what he wants to study (Athletic Training), how he wants to spend his summer (Interning at the local Belfast Historical Society and playing Legion baseball) and how well he seems to be handling an enormous part of his life ending (Au revoir, HOME.) More than changing, he is evolving.

But his eyes. They haven’t and they don’t change. Garrett has clear blue eyes, the deep shade that remains in the sky for just a moment before the sun dips below the horizon. They’re a bit close together, and one of them is noticeably smaller than the other, and though it may sound like a mini Picasso sketch, it’s actually quite charming. Said his mother.

As always, his eyes are full of light, anticipation, optimism and promise. They are steadfast and clear. If eyes are the window of the soul, then Garrett’s soul is shining bright and bursting with wonder, awe and potential. I simply can’t wait to see what he does next.

Which doesn’t mean I’m wishing June away.

As people do when they face great changes – whether loss, shift, or gain- I’ve prioritized. My focus right now is entirely on my family, and those the closest to us (who, to me, are family as well) as we enter into a new stage with our oldest child. Life is still chaotic and unpredictable, and our schedules are insane, but there’s a calmness surrounding us when we’re together. We sense a need to connect. Like platelets to a wound, we’re rushing to strengthen ties we’ve formed for eighteen years so this young man will know and feel the supports working to hold him up.

May he never know a life without it.

Graduation is less an ending than it is a ceremony in which a person walks to end of a 3-meter diving board, raises his arms, points his toes, tenses every muscle in his body, jumps off one leg straight up to gain momentum, lands fully on the board for a tremendous spring — and jumps.  I’m telling you, this kid is working himself into a back dive with 1 1/2 somersaults, 3 1/2 twists, free position dive. He hasn’t even begun to reach his full potential.

Stay tuned.

He wrote this on a beach in New Zealand at age 12. 

Adventure #7: As Luck Would Have It

My bad luck started in a cemetery – a very old one, in which emperors from centuries ago are buried. I’m one of those weirdos who believe cemeteries to be beautiful, reverent spaces (though a useless waste of land space) and typically, I seek them out when in foreign places, but this one gave me a feeling of unwelcome, as if I had absolutely no business being there. Not a bird chirping. Tall trees standing at attention in utter silence. A ray of sunshine, muted, peeking through.

Just one person is enshrined in this building, and more individuals in several like it in a row to the left.

These ancient tombs lay like scrolls I wanted to be begged to unroll and read. Instead, they whispered “go away”. So I did.

This ominous feeling followed me to our next stop, a pagoda and shrine at which I bought a tiny little rolled up piece of paper that housed my life fortune. Why did I do this? Because I’m an optimist and a buoyant believer in creating one’s own luck,and hadn’t planned to put stock in what it said, thank you very much.

Said pagoda.

But dammit. My fortune declared me quite unlucky indeed: a #3 (not as bad as a #1 but nowhere near a #10.) A three? Really, Fate? A three. I’ve been luckier than a three standing in the pouring rain/freezing sleet at a train station in Korea when I found a beautiful pair of leather gloves on the ground which were: you guessed it. Just my size. So THERE. #3 my butt.

Still. I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t even allow Patrick to read the fortune part. Instead, I attempted to leave it hanging on a string outside the shrine, as one does in Japan when one, in essence, puts a palm in the face of Fate and won’t hear another word. That’s right. Fate turns we unlucky people into teenagers.

You’re supposed to unroll the fortune, gently tie it in a loose little knot and leave it — creating time for Fate to reconsider. But when I went to gently tie my little paper in a tiny little knot, it tiny little ripped. Like the space/time continuum itself. Again, dammit. Now I knew Fate would not reconsider. Fate was to hold me to my #3.

Which seems silly, doesn’t it?

But in Japan, luck is a big deal. There are six ways to say “luck” for crying out loud. When I returned to my host family that evening, they had already heard about my slip of paper. WHAT I’M SAYING IS: this news preceded me. How, I didn’t know. But rumor had it, I was, big inhale, unlucky.

Only one person in my family thought it funny, rather than a curse. At first I felt relieved, but then he was the one who suggested I go to a shrine the following day to leave an offering and pray for a change in my fate! In fact, he insisted on it, though he wouldn’t be the one with time to take me. What made me nod my head and oblige? I have no idea. Nothing unlucky had happened, unless you count receiving the #3 to be the thing.

But off we went, at 7am, after the hot springs and before the Sakura Festival. Hitomi drove a total of 45 minutes just so I could have a chance to reverse my #3. I took pictures of this outing, but deleted them later, as they were blurry and dark and I think Fate put His finger over the lens.

Anyway. I brought water as an offering, took my shoes off, washed my hands properly, and, at this point, genuinely prayed for my luck to return as I would be boarding a flying piece of metal in less than 24 hours and, whatever, I’d take all the luck I could get.

That night, after a lovely goodbye banquet at city hall, Ka-san and Hitomi led me into the worship room in their home and closed the door. This had not happened before, I noted, this closed door thing. They silently lit incense, kneeled before each of the Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and murmured prayers. Then it was my turn. They handed me matches, encouraged me to light my own incense, and pointed to the sand in which to place it. “For your luck,” Hitomi said, seriously. Then I understood. So I lit the incense and matched her somber tone. “For my luck,” I repeated.

This visit to the public shrine and this lighting of incense at the private shrines must have worked. I’ve had exactly zero bad luck since.

Knock on wood.