01 March 2015

The poetry book that saved my life!

A couple of different friends posted this powerful essay on Facebook today from the New York Times about a mother trying to reach out to her daughter when she was going through a difficult and dark period while she was in school.

At first, I was just reading it as I do any kind of essays that I find links to, and then I started weeping, and a kind of jealousy started to seep inside of me:

I wish someone put poetry inside my shoes when I was in high school.

I wish someone had seen in me the darkness I felt and tried to reach out.

I wish anyone believed in me back then.

But then, I remembered. Someone had. It was my sophomore English teacher who handed me my first book of poetry and told me I mattered.

My sophomore year of high school I took an English class from Mr. Tagami. I loved the way he made me feel as if I mattered--as if I was smart, as if I had something to contribute to the class. It was in his class that I felt my writing start to come alive.

Mr. Tagami made me feel like there was something within me worth holding onto.

Because of his faith in me and because I so desperately needed to feel like I mattered, I became his TA my junior year of high school. I'm not even sure they let students do that very often especially as a junior, but I think he knew I was on the verge of dropping out, and he made special arrangements to let me TA in his class. And...I loved it. I thrived in that class. He made me feel almost like a teacher to those sophomores who were only a year younger than me but felt a generation apart. On some days, it was Mr. Tagami's class that was the only thing that got me out of bed.

And it was right before our Christmas break that he handed me a book wrapped in paper. "Something to put under your tree," he said. Of course, I was barely out of the classroom when I tore the wrapping paper off of it.

It was a book. Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics.

And he inscribed it with something like this: To Sarah, who needs to just keep writing. Mr. Tagami.

Those weren't the exact words--because the book was stolen when I was in my late 20s when it was in storage in an apartment complex where my husband and I lived just after we got married. But I'd read over those words enough as a teen to know they are close. He told me to keep writing. He made me feel as if I mattered.

Like the daughter in this NY Times essay, I was lost. I was lost and on the verge of death most days. I fantasized about suicide, wrote poem after poem about death, was certain I was valued more dead than I would be alive because the thought of someone missing me felt as if someone would care.

"The most optimistic people often struggle the hardest. They can't quite square what's going on in the world with their beliefs, and the disparity is alarming.

"She was temporarily swamped at the intersection of grief over a bleak political landscape, transition to a mediocre high school, and the vast existential questions of a curious adolescent." -Betsy McWhinney

I was steeped in grief throughout high school, but I didn't know it then. I didn't understand it nor did I have words for it. My father had died ten years earlier, but we never talked about his death in our home. We didn't have conversations about him over dinner. I just knew that something was wrong with me. "A bastard child," is what some kids had called me, and I didn't even know what that was, but it felt so wrong that I knew something was wrong with me. And my oldest brother who stepped in as a father figure had left for college a few years before, and while he promised to stay in touch and come back to visit, his promises fell short of my expectations.

And then my middle brother left home too. He was five years older than me, so when I started eighth grade, he was gone. He too made promises he couldn't keep and rarely returned.

So as I understood it back then: Men leave.

It was in high school when my grief really manifested into unhealthy behaviors. Experimentation with food. I could go fourteen days on just a can of peaches and some zwieback crackers for breakfast, vegetable broth for lunch, a can of vegetable soup for dinner. Or I could eat nearly an entire pizza and then try my damndest to get rid of it quickly. Only I was terrible at vomiting so I'd heard someone once talk about Epsom salts, and I tried those. Fasting was easier, but there were times when I got terribly hungry.

When none of that worked to appease my grief, I turned to harder substances.

All of that to say, that none of it made sense in my brain, and while I tried to make sense of it, I also felt like I was dying on most days.

Mr. Tagami and a few other key people back then kept me alive without even knowing that they kept me alive. Or maybe they did know. I clung to that book at night and often fell asleep with it tucked under my pillow.

I know a hundred ways to die.
I’ve often thought that I’d try one
Lie down beneath a motor truck
Some day when standing by one.

Or throw myself from off a bridge—
Except such things must be
So hard upon the scavengers
And men that clean the sea.

I know some poison I could drink.
I’ve often thought I’d taste it.
But mother bought it for the sink,
And drinking it would waste it.

I imagined that motor truck again and again in my nights as I lie awake and made my lists of all the ways I might die. But it was that pen and that paper and Mr. Tagami who each day when I left would turn to me and say, "And I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow, Sarah," that kept me alive.

I can still remember the bleakness of life back then, the longing for things to seem better except that I had no understanding that it could be better. The days spilled out ahead of me toward loneliness and darkness.

It was this poetry book and Mr. Tagami's faith in me that somehow propelled me forward.

For that, and for so much more, I am eternally grateful.

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