Child on Top of a Greenhouse
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
Thursday was one of those days. One of those classes that just clicked and a group of 12 year olds, without knowing it gave their teacher the belief that good things can come from throwing the plan out the window.
We were reading Theodore Roethke‘s Child on Top of a Greenhouse, having spent the whole month on poetry. We started by linking Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with poems by William Carlos Williams and WH Auden about the painting. Looking at paintings is a great way into a poem, the visual, the narrative, the surface and the depth of a painting are great mirrors for how I want them to see a poem: what comes naturally in reading a painting can be taught quickly for a poem. You have to present them with the limitless possibilities in a piece of art: I tell them there are no wrong answers and no judgement but we’ll move ahead when we’re all happy with a suggestion. I like to introduce ‘the maybe’, ‘maybe he’s saying…’ maybe it shows…’
We wrote some poems, haikus about what we saw.
We moved on to First Steps by Van Gogh. I didn’t link this to a poem but used it for a writing exercise for homework and built on the still moment in a painting so we could discuss the stillness in a poem. I didn’t talk about it that way, but talked about a snapshot, or a selfie that captures a fleeting thing forever.
Then we went ‘under the surface’ The Road Not Taken: we discussed the ending first, where is Frost when he tells us the story?, how does he feel about it ?and then the choices he made, the choices we make. All very structured, me taking less of a lead, but still prodding their ideas along, them getting more confident.
Last week we tore into Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney to look at the senses and emotions in a seasonal poem that has all the heartbreak of youth, but still an adult’s view, looking back. The haikus they wrote, edited and tweeted in response are here.
So it was all going pretty well before we even got to Roethke. I wanted to do a mirroring exercise: take the poem and rewrite for yourself. That had to wait.
I opened with a joke in the first line, how does the wind billow out the back of your trousers? They smile but set me straight, it’s not flatulence it’s how high up he is! We talk about the onomatopoeic cracks under his feet as he realises how high up he is, we look for other onomatopoeic words. I explain what putty is (the generation gap!) and it’s all going fine. I think it is when we get to chrysanthemums that things take off. I say they are sometimes symbolic of death but I don’t know if that’s what Roethke has in mind. Someone says they’re half grown like the boy. Someone else says he’s going to get killed, not literally but throwing forward to the end, killed ‘like parents do'(!). Then we talk about sunlight and streaked glass, ‘the place the child was in’, ‘he’s up high, he can see stuff he doesn’t see when he’s down low’ and the transition into my favourite part of the poem is ready, so far: 90% their work. Look at those clouds, look at those trees, I say. ‘He can see new things’, ‘maybe he hasn’t noticed this stuff before’, ‘maybe he’s very still, because he doesn’t want to break the glass and everything in the sky is moving’ (no homework for you!), ‘the horses’ manes are like the trees in the wind’ ‘when you said about the chrysanthemums, they were half grown, maybe he isn’t going to be the same after this’, ‘maybe this is when he grows up’ (no homework for anyone!).
‘I think he mightn’t care about the adults pointing up’, ‘they aren’t just adults, it’s everyone’, why does he repeat everyone?, I ask, ‘for emphasis’ (love that), ‘but maybe it was a barbecue and all the neighbours are there, even his grandparents are pointing’ (beautiful). And then this clincher: ‘I don’t think he cares about them being angry.’ I push here, and they divide into two groups, some say ‘he does care, it brings him back down to earth’ (I don’t acknowledged this because I’m floating on air at that stage), some others say ‘maybe he’s a man now, writing this and he knows being up on the greenhouse is the right place to be’.
And I tell my students, twelve year old girls who rode the crest of this poem and didn’t blink an eye, that this has been the best class in my room for years. and as they’re leaving one turns to another and says ‘that was good, wasn’t it?, ‘yeah,’ comes the reply, like they can do this all the time.
And while this doesn’t happen every day, or even week, I’m the better for it, because it makes me reach, and they’re the better for it because it makes them think. I didn’t think once of outcomes, or objectives or process, but I was a teacher in the middle of it all.