Updated: Nov 8, 2021
By Holly Pelesky
They write all sorts of things.
Some of their poems are joyful or light-hearted: loving sweaters and apple cider in the fall. Some are funny: cafeteria one-liners turned topical explorations of Jell-O. Some poems are angry rants at their parents, their teachers, the world. Here is the hardest part of this job: sometimes they write poems about evils. About the cruelty of people they have learned. Already. As tender and young as they are.
For three years I’ve been coaching high school students on how to write and perform poems. I received the job offer the same day I received the keys to my own apartment. I was newly launched from marriage, halfway through graduate school, and had just started writing these letters to you.
I am better at this job than I expected I’d be.
I am twice my students’ age, but we get each other in some way. They trust me because I am not their mothers and I listen to their outrage. I feel like I belong here: not as one of them, but as someone who has found where she is useful.
You’re old enough now to be sitting here. Sometimes I look out at the room of students and imagine you there, among them, chatting aimlessly or cracking jokes or listening intently. I know you’re not there but even still, sometimes my glance lands on the quiet blonde at the back of the room and without my glasses on, she could be you.
The best advice I’ve given them is to write to one person. To focus in on audience instead as one specific person accepting their words. I explain it by telling them I wouldn’t say the same things to them I would say to my mother. We show different sides of ourselves to different people, I say.
This is how I’ve learned to write in writing to you.
They have been my conduit to communicating with you. I was so nervous to talk to you before I met them. They have taught me how to talk to teenagers which is to speak like an adult, without diminishing their experiences because of their age, without talking down to them. I know now the best way to talk to any person is with care and attention and honesty.
While they write, so do I. I don’t write about you since I don’t know you outside of your Instagram squares. I write to you. You, this person I don’t know but want to be my most honest self for.
Telling you who I’ve been instead of being your mother is the only way I know how to forgive myself.
Today, I asked my students to write their most honest selves. I know that’s a lot to ask of a teenager. I know they are living as personas. These students attend a Catholic school. Most of them don’t identify as good Catholics. They are hiding parts of themselves from school staff or from their parents until they graduate or longer.
I too know what it’s like to live as a persona.
I did that for so long myself. First as a pious person, then as a sinner, then as a wife. Now, sometimes as a mother or as a writer. None of these personas fully describe me, yet I’ve let the small truths of them define me as if it is all of me. It’s a protection, a hiding.
My students live compartmentalized as little epithets. By and large, they write on the same topic week after week. Same sex attraction and depression and an overwhelming sense of pressure come up again and again. They share this aspect of themselves over and over for the group without sharing the parts they’re not ready to talk about.
When I wrote today’s lesson plan, I thought of the visible and vulnerable parts of us. I thought about how we construct personas around the parts of us we aren’t afraid of and then we harbor those tender unspokens. I wondered what would happen if we fed those parts of us that starve. Maybe the power of truth-telling is unlearning shame and learning to fill that space instead with pride.
Today I asked them to share something new.
I never ask my students to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. So this afternoon, I told them about you. I told them that I was like them once. After home school, I started attending tenth grade at a private K-12 with a strict dress code. A football player called me a lesbian and I never told a soul because I believed it was something to be ashamed of. That’s the first time I remember harboring a secret self.
I told my students I went on to a religious college and both lost my virginity and became pregnant my senior year. One of my classmates tried to have the university kick me out, saying I was setting a bad example. But I had a Creative Writing professor who stood up for me. She asked me to become her TA so it would be possible for me to graduate while I grew you inside my body. I told my students that ten days after you were born, I moved here to Nebraska. I have never returned home. I told them I found a new home.
After I shared that, we sat at desks and while a playlist cycled, we fed our tender unspokens.
And then, the girl who’d told us she wrote a poem she will never share shared that secret poem. Later, I received an email from another student thanking me for my authenticity and vulnerability. We were tender and honest with each other. In that room we were nourished.
And you, Grace. Although you are at home in Washington, you were also in that room. Your name and all the compassion it means.
For fifteen years now you’ve been everywhere your mother is, and also, also here with me.
Holly Pelesky writes essays, fiction and poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska. Her prose can be found in Roanoke Review, The Nasiona and Jellyfish Review. She recently released her first collection of poems, Quiver. She works, coaches slam poetry, and raises boys in Omaha.