Let America be carefree again. Let America be fun. Let America be chubby. Let America be fair.
These are some of the 45 visions by Liberty Bell High School ninth graders, who described their dreams for America in heartfelt, personal, and often humorous poems.
The poems were the culmination of a unit about the meaning of justice and how it could be enhanced in their lives, school, community and country, Liberty Bell English teacher Dani Golden said.
The unit included readings, presentations and panel discussions organized by local activist Darcy Ottey. Through a Methow Arts teaching residence, poet Cindy Williams Guttiérez worked with the students on their writing.
Over the course of the unit, students looked at the American dream from different perspectives, including the founding fathers; Chief Joseph; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the DACA dreamers — the young people brought to the United States by their families from another country, but who don’t have a lawful status here.
The students explored the advantages and obstacles faced by each group and compared those experiences with their own dreams, Williams Guttiérez said. “It’s all about empathy – they realize their own experience is not the only experience,” she said.
For their final poetry project, the classes studied Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” and used the poem and its meter as inspiration. Hughes’ poem expresses the tension between the American dream and his experience as a black man in early 20th-century America. Many students explored unrealized dreams in their poems, but others focused on values they come across in their daily life.
Williams Guttiérez worked individually with each student to help them translate their abstract dream into something that could be felt with the senses.
“It was such an exciting transition – you could see the light bulb go on,” as they moved from something abstract to a concrete image you could see, smell or taste, Williams Guttiérez said. “It deepens the power of the poem.”
Golden helped students incorporate symbolism and imagery through linguistic devices such as rhyme, alliteration or assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. She prompted students to draw on their own experiences – playing hockey, having younger siblings – to come up with relatable examples of abstract concepts like fairness and dignity.
Students could write about whatever they wanted. “There’s a huge diversity in the poems. Some found things to critique about America; some found things that make them prideful,” Golden said. “I try really hard to celebrate every single student to make it personal and meaningful.”
Williams Guttiérez wanted students to have a vehicle to express their ideas in their own way. “I consider teaching poetry as a subversive act,” she said. “It’s instilling confidence in each student’s singular voice – it’s not my voice.”
“A poem is supposed to be like a river – it starts in one place and ends up someplace else. There must be a turn somewhere,” she said.
Some students pondered issues of discrimination, poverty, body image or addiction. Others wrote about a positive vision for America, such as natural beauty or feeling contented.
In “Let America Change for Once,” Sage Schrager wrote about seeing everyone as equal, regardless of their skin color or whom they love. Writing about a subject with such personal meaning was easier than tackling a topic from which she feels detached, Schrager said. “The idea came to me right away. It resonates because it’s something I want to change,” she said.
Schrager used the image of a marionette to depict the way people trumpet their views on social media to get fame and attention, but not because they really care.
Raiff Reichert brainstormed examples of a carefree America and found lots of real-world examples. Reichert envisioned a life where “people’s happiness / is crowned and not their status, or belongings, or wealth, or beliefs and religions, but simply / their enjoyment of life.”
Clover Thrasher likes to read and write poetry. In “The Land of The Caged,” she used imagery and metaphors to convey kindness and joyfulness, like “Let America be ringed with smiles, creasing our cheeks again.”
Lucien Paz started his poem “Let America Be Open Minded” with a quote from Martin Luther King that has inspired him for years. “Let America be a place where a fist in the air means power to all. Not just black or white power,” Paz wrote.
Kaden Borowski used rhythm and carefully considered line breaks so that the images unfold slowly, encouraging people to stop and think. In “Let America Be Peaceful Again,” Borowski wrote “O, let my land be land where viruses wash away / Like trees in a flood with no place to root themselves.”
Pippa Smith considered writing about equality and fairness but, sitting indoors and gazing out the window, she came up with “Let America Be Outdoors Again.” Much of the poem flowed naturally, Smith said. The first image that came to her was “Let it be fields of flower-speckled grass nestled into forest floors.” Then the rhymes suggested themselves, with “Let us seek a new adventure in this world just outside our doors,” she said.
The outdoors contains its own element of social justice, since people who live in poverty typically have less access to the outdoors, Smith said.
The young poets have had several opportunities to share their writing. Some joined other local poets and read their poems at the sixth-annual William Stafford Birthday Reading organized by Williams Guttiérez earlier this month, which celebrated the poet and lifelong pacifist.
All students participated in two virtual readings for parents, families and invited community members. Methow Arts will be posting the poems on their website and plans to publish a printed book of the poems in the future.
The students received “massive accolades” from the audience at the poetry reading, Golden said. The students’ vision of justice was so powerful that many people suggested they send their poems to members of Congress or to President Biden, she said.