Words of Love: A poet's literacy program for the poorest
The Guardian
Cynthia Rose

With earnest concentration, tiny Bobby Banks pushes his eyeglasses back up his sweaty nose. Scratching one skinny leg, he scans his classmates' faces, clutches his handwritten poem and haltingly starts to read.

"Losing Someone," he intones. "Tropical birds/In the fire/What a desire/I hear a moan/And - he's gone." His classmates whistle and clap in support; a grin breaks out on Bobby's face and he whisks back to his seat.

His teacher, Susan Hankla, is smiling and clapping, too. For Bobby Banks, like all her students, has rarely tried to write at all. Life in this corner of Appalachian Virginia - real-life home of television's Depression-era Waltons - remains almost exclusively oral. Even in the most dedicated schools, illiteracy is high and want is extremely palpable. Bobby Banks' classroom smells of barbecue and fried chicken; it shimmers with intense and unrelenting heat. Grass grows through its floorboards and on the blackboard behind us sit the spelling mistakes of another teacher.

Within an hour, however, Hankla has gotten Bobby and Rita, DeRondo and Romeo and twenty others with similar names fighting over paper and pencils. We will leave the one-story, prefab school with a stack of poems and stories and songs. They are tales of Monsters and Colours and Seasons; love poems and blues poems and "Thanking Poems". And they resonate with vivid detail, burst with inventive language. "I am Frankenstein jr," reads one by DeWayne Johnson. "I will bite your lip and put a bomb in you/I am very ugly and I am all colours: My girls name is Dot/And me and my girl we always SING/One nation/under the groove."

For Susan Hankla, 36, this corner of rural America is "one nation under the groove". Hankla is an expert at bridging the gap between spoken and written culture. The world in which she teaches is a place where School Board buildings nestle next to cattle auctions; a universe of "white flight" schools, where the few privileged Caucasian children are shipped off to private schools. Her pupils fall into just two categories: poor blacks and poorer whites.

As we drive the winding country roads which take her from school to school, Hankla explains their differences. "Poor black children have a definite grip on reality. But they also have a joyfulness that really did suprise me. Black culture floats; it's present and changing all the time." Poor whites, she says, are even more disadvantaged. "The white hillbilly kids, who are pleased if they're born on Elvis' birthday, have very low self-esteem. Their culture is very severe, it's not happy at all."

Officially, Hankla teaches "language arts" and creative writing. In reality, her work holds the key to a world outside the isolated, deprived mountains. Even for those who will never leave, being able to write confers self-respect. "I try to convince all these kids they have something special to write about."

Her aims are big and serious. But Hankla's tool is simple - it's an exercise she calls "Word Band". Word Band consists of evocative phrases, such as "red skirt", "listen to me", "midnight train" and "lightning rod". They are written on slips of coloured paper, then piled in a plastic bag. In each class, Hankla asks for seven volunteers. She has them draw one phrase-strip each, then stands them at the front of the room. As she points to the children one by one, each repeats the phrase he has picked - a game she varies and accelerates, until the words come together to form an aural "poem".

She then makes a quick move from speaking into writing - by giving each child five or six phrase-strips, and asking them to use these words and form a poem of their own. (By placing the strips in a line on the desk, she has found even the least secure child is easily able to do this.) Once students grasp the Word Band method, Hankla will use the strips to spark off other assignments. She asks one class to compose a blues song, another to tell an alien "how he could find his way to your house", a third to invent a faery tale. She keeps all her language specific and local, alluding to church, CB radios, cold drinks and country cooking.

Hankla, 36, is an award-winning poet and visual artist. But ever since 1976, she has also been a literacy activist, undertaking regular missions into rural Virginia and North Carolina schools. Her work is paid for under a program called "Poets In the Schools", financially supported by America's National Endowment For the Arts. But Hankla sees the program as something which teaches survival skills - not aesthetic niceties. Over three days, in mountain schools, I watch the way her Word Band works. And its impact fascinates me.

Class after class, I see how it energises sullen, tired and disaffected kids. Every time, the youngsters are transformed. Within half-an-hour, they are pouring their experience onto paper, declaiming poems with high excitement; singing and clapping and giggling at one another's work. As I pass Hankla's plastic bag of phrase-strips, they follow me around the room, shouting, "Gimme some more-a them words, M'am! Gimme some a-them WORDS!"

These kids are not the only folk Hankla has impressed. Her work has been cited by Virginia's Governor, tapped by academics (especially those with an interest in Black English), drawn attention from educators as far abroad as Denmark and Paris. Teachers in the schools she visits fete her as best they can (one time, this means lunch at a cafe - somewhere else, just a shrink-wrapped sandwich). One thing admired by everyone is the way Hankla respects the children's own culture, even while preparing them to deal with a different world.

Hankla's system evolved out of her own despair with teaching. Her initial experience on the road came in Southampton County, Virginia ("where Planter's Peanuts are grown and Nat Turner staged his slave rebellion in 1831"). The children she found there were vivid and keen - yet no-one was training them to write. "The kids were so gifted, so spontaneous. But they absolutely could not transfer what they said onto paper." She developed Word Band using overheard phrases and local buzzwords, language which brought her students' reality into their classroom. "These phrases give the children something to start with, something to build on. As they gain confidence, they add on more and more of themselves."

"What you're up against," she adds,"is that they hate and fear writing. They see it as a something they're made to do, something with no connection to their lives."

The work is exhausting. Hankla's classes start at 7:00 am, and continue in schools which are miles apart. Heat and humidity are major factors - she teaches in "drip-dry" clothes which must be washed out every evening. And overnight accommodation is often in lonely motels. "Once I slept next door to the victims of a car wreck. They were waiting for daylight to be driven out of the mountains, down to the hospital. I could hear them moaning and groaning all night."

But resilience, says Hankla, is what makes her an educator."Because, these days, our problems are not just rural. All America's kids are under a kind of friendly fire. Even when they have more things - malls and satellite dishes - they lack a sense of identity. Usually their fear of language is a fear of failure itself."

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