Chris La Tray is a poet from Montana who is also a member of the Little Shell tribe of Chippewa Indians. Every Thursday, he travels to the Flathead Reservation to teach poetry to fourth graders. He wrote about these kids last year as they were coming out of the pandemic, and his insights point out the way creative language can illuminate the margins of our lives — especially when those empty spaces are filled with fear or anxiety or sorrow.
He explains that he’s not teaching the students much in the way of poetic forms such as sonnets or acrostics, but instead is trying to light the fire that burns within any poem:
What I am teaching them is to observe, to take note, to try to live lives that are also poetry, because that to me is what it boils down to. To open wide and observe the world and reflect it back through words on a page. To love the world and themselves and each other. There are so many stories coming off these children that I can sense, hints shared between the lines and in flashes across their faces. Every child different, every child a story. Some of the things they ask me to read, but don’t want read out loud … they are hard, and what can I say, for example, to a child who misses her mother and doesn’t know where she is? Only that her words, delivered in a tiny scrawl in the upper corner of the paper, are beautiful, and thank her for them.
Chris is remarkably candid in this post, as he reveals his own struggle with anxiety and having to pull over while driving to just breathe through panic attacks. “I don’t know why it’s happening … maybe something different is broken, some frayed binding finally snapped,” he writes. “Is it feeling intensely at odds with the world at every turn? Is it the relentless tide of shootings and beatings and murders? Or is it merely the steady slog of hurt and angst and despair that I slowly drag behind myself to a varying degree every moment of my life?”
He feels like he’s being broken open, but one way through that cracking is to turn to beauty and each other — which is why he drives an hour every Thursday to teach poetry to fourth graders. The kids are showing him a way through:
The thing about being broken open is a lot of love pours through too. Love coming in, and intense love reflected back out. It sounds overly sentimental but love can heal the world. Or at least our human place in it. It is the only thing that can! But we have to move beyond the definitions of what love is as just this airy thing and create an active love in the world.
“That’s what I try and teach these kids about poetry,” he says. “It is what I am trying to teach myself, but I’m not very good at it at all.”
The good news is that no one has to be very good at poetry — or life — to put words on the page to capture the bits of love and beauty that flutter past us every day. Those moments are all too easy to miss, especially if we’re caught up in our own “slog of hurt and angst and despair.” Poetry sends us after that fluttering beauty with a butterfly net, and putting words to what we catch opens our eyes and lifts our spirits because it allows us to share it with others — especially those who need it most.
Special thanks to the Missoula Writing Collaborative for sharing the work from these students with us.