Words of Hope

Chicago, IL
Poetry Foundation Summer Institute for Teachers

My first encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye in person was at the beginning of my teaching career over 20 years ago. She was invited to present to a group of teachers. I’m not sure I was in the group that was specifically invited, but I felt inspired to go. So I did and have never been the same since.

On that summer visit, Naomi stayed in a bed and breakfast and slept in a room that Thomas Jefferson had once occupied in Fairfax, VA. She spoke in awe of the feeling she had being in that room. I’ve never forgotten the way I felt as she described her experience. It was July when our minds are often turned to freedom, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that wasn’t the thing that changed me.

What changed me was a small act of kindness. Here’s how it happened. Naomi encouraged each of us to find our own poetic voices. At that time, I had written exactly one poem. She had generously shared her email address with us, so I shared my one poem with her. She emailed me back! As a new teacher, she empowered me through her kind response. I felt something grow inside me. Ever since that exchange, I have remembered the strength and gentleness in her voice, her passion for peace, and her outrage at injustice. But what I remember most is that she made me feel like I was worth something, just by being another human being.

Today, I had my second opportunity to be taught by Naomi face-to-face. She talked about how our writing notebooks may turn out to be the great achievement of our lives. She encouraged us to write just 3 lines a day. She said, “Over time, a poem might appear that you didn’t even know you were carrying.”

This was the nudge that changed me 20+ years ago. It was the nudge I needed today. She said that we all deserve more poetry in our lives because poetry creates more expansive spaces in which we can live. Poetry lingers in the air after the words are spoken. There is magic and mystery in poetry that can’t be explained, and it’s supposed to be like that. I’m so grateful.

A favorite line from her talk today: “I’ve never been any place where poetry did not want to live more.” To me, the converse could also be true. Poetry is a place that makes me want to live more–to pause, to observe, to treasure, and create. These words of encouragement and hope lifted my spirits and gave me energy that I hope to bring back to my students in just a few short weeks.