To author Sam Swope’s credit, “I Am a Pencil” (Henry Holt and Company, $25) never lapses into the emotionally overwrought and caricatured stories of teachers who find success with students in inner city schools. Instead, Swope’s book chronicles his work with a group of Queens students over three years, and the story is as much about him as it is about his students.
His journey begins when he accepts a request to run a 10-day workshop in Jackson Heights for a group of 28 third graders at a time when his own writing seems to have reached a lull. Swope welcomes the change and the opportunity to feel useful, and ultimately stays with the class until their fifth grade graduation.
However, after devoutly Pentacostal Miguel worries that he’ll be punished for dancing in the class performance of Peter Pan, Swope grows determined to give students limitless access to their imagination. This freedom can surpass any economic, religious or personal stress in their lives. Swope finds his own creativity revived and vows to follow and work with these students for three years and to write a book about his experiences.
“I Am a Pencil” opens with Swope’s account of teaching Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to the group of fifth graders that he has been teaching for the past three years. Armed with new definitions of words like Haddam, lucid, equipage and euphony, the students are instructed to read the poem silently.
Quiet, determined reading ensues but when asked for first reactions, Simon, a plucky student replies, “What’d you give us a college poem for?” followed by another response of “I thought I was falling asleep!”
Swope turns the classroom lights off, tells students to get comfortable and reads the poem aloud, letting the haunting words resonate in the dark, quiet room.
Students start to say how the poem makes them feel and soon heated arguments about imagery and a particular stanza’s meaning ensue. The poetry that emerges when students are told to mimic Stevens and to write about a tree from various perspectives reminds readers how powerful a child’s quick, honest insight can be. Rosie writes:
The world around the tree
Was hectic and moving
Yet it stood still
With a brave heart.
Supported by the kindly, organized veteran third grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, Swope learns in his first year how to be “Mr. Swope,” collaborator, editor, and at times school counselor. Often he conferences with students individually or acts as a scribe for the more reluctant or hyperactive writers.
Swope’s investment is evident in not only the writing process but when he literally gives students the gift of language at their third-grade holiday party. Each student is given three different words, elegant words chosen especially for that child, written on cards in calligraphy and tied up with a bow.
Swope soon discovers that the writing his students produce not only reflects their exaggerated and wonderful fantasies, but can also be loosely veiled stories of real-life anxiety. Miguel, whose father restricts his play with other children for fear that they will be a damaging influence, writes a violent tale of a vicious leaf that maims a kitten’s paw.
Su Jung, a quiet child working through the difficulty of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s sudden but permanent move back to Korea, writes about a Snoopy balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade: “I’m all folded up in this dusty place. People come and clean the dust that’s on me. I want to go outside and feel the wind.”
What prevents the book from being self-indulgent or trite is Swope’s keen interest in representing his student’s lives accurately (he often taped his conversations with both students and parents). He respectfully and tenderly allows readers into the children’s personal as well as academic lives. Along the way, readers also learn of overcrowded classrooms, poorly trained teachers, stringent state curriculum mandates and different families’ social services needs. Even so, Swope’s story does not comment directly on the social problems he sees, nor does he offer solutions or incite action.
“I Am a Pencil” concludes with students readying for their next stage in life: middle school. After worrying about possible gang violence and inferior academics in the neighborhood school most children would attend, Swope launches a full-scale search into alternate schools for the children.
But once the testing is done, acceptance and denial letters received and parent permission granted or denied, most students end up attending the neighborhood school anyway.
Swope comforts himself in the fact that many survive bad middle school experiences. And one wonders, albeit idealistically, if these students, verbally adept and practiced in self-expression, are perhaps a bit more equipped to handle the stress of adolescence.