Elizabeth GoldI had come in to the fourth grade summer school class with Federico García-Lorca's "Sleepwalking Ballad" ("Green green I want you green...") all set to get the students writing poems about color. The poems they wrote were good, some of them, although I can't remember them now. Their poems were eclipsed by what happened next, when I was gathering my books together, getting ready to go.
"I met García-Lorca once," Kevin, the natural comedian in the front row, suddenly said, with an air of airy adult nonchalance.
"Did you?" I asked. "That's pretty amazing. He died over thirty years ago."
Kevin pretended not to have heard me. "Oh yes. Oh yes. I met him --- oh --- about ten years ago."
The class began to snicker, but Kevin's face was perfectly deadpan.
"Really? What did he look like?"
"He had a great big afro. Like my grandfather," he said, and as the class cracked up, he added, inspired, "That's where he kept his money. He just picked it out of his hair."
"That's where he kept his dog leash," someone added. "When he wanted to walk his dog, he just reached into his afro."
"That's where he kept his chicken! When he was hungry he reached into his afro!"
By this time the whole class was shouting all the diffrerent things that García-Lorca kept in his afro, and I was writing them on the board as fast as I could. But I couldn't write much --- I really did have to go. Yet over the next couple of days, I kept thinking about the afro of García-Lorca. When I returned to class, it seems the students had, too. "Can we talk some more about the afro of García-Lorca?" someone asked.
"I have a better idea. Why don't we write poems about it instead?"
Which they did. I wrote the lines on the board from the last class, changing "I met..." to "We met..." Then they were off, describing that afro, which grew more and more enormous, sheltering an oven, a refrigerator, a jacuzzi, Grandma, God, and Big Ben. They also drew pictures: García-Lorca in sideburns, a goatee, and a great mushroom cloud of an afro; a García-Lorca who was nothing but a mound of afro; and --- in a drawing which I think of as an extraordinary metaphor for a poet --- García-Lorca as a tiny, tiny man with a huge afro sprouting apples. One boy went even further, drawing García-Lorca's alter ego, García-Loco.
I have no idea why they found that afro so captivating --- or why I did, too. But at one point this boy lifted his head and said with a look of serious dreaminess (and he was usually a wild boy, who found it almost impossible to keep still), "Is this what a poem is? Just making things up?"
"Yes," I said, "that's exactly what it is."
Just making things up. It sounds so easy, but the route to that place of inspired rightness is so mysterious that poets of other eras invented women with wings and togas to show themselves the way. Still, there are a few things that happened with that class beforehand to make those afros possible.
[This essay first appeared in the magazine of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative. They are dedicated to "sending creative writers into schools and other settings to conduct writing workshops with students, teachers, and other members of the community." They can be found at 5 Union Square West, New York City 10003. Subscriptions are $16 a year. They deserve your support.]