Knock, Knock: Turning Pain into Power

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Scott Bakal

Illustration: Scott Bakal

Too often today, schools are about standards and common curriculum: Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn first quarter, move on to Great Gatsby … And too often, I get caught up in that land too. Then my heart gets cracked open by students, and I remember that first I must teach the child who is in the class. By structuring a curriculum that allows room for students lives and by listening to their stories, I can locate the right book, the right poem that turns pain into power—while I teach reading and writing. Unless I consciously build these opportunities into the curriculum, there is little hope of getting authenticity from students.

Daniel Beaty, poet and playwright, came to life for me one New Year’s Eve when my husband, Bill, and I watched hour after hour of the HBO show “Def Poetry Jam.” I fell in love with many poets that night, but when I watched Daniel Beaty perform “Knock Knock,” I knew I was witnessing a poet whose performance and words would inspire my students. I bought the “Def Poetry” DVD, transcribed the words, and carried Beaty with me to class. Partly autobiographical, the poem speaks directly to many of my students because Beaty’s drive-home message in everything he does is that in order to heal ourselves, our society, and our world, we must turn our pain into power. [Beaty’s “Def Poetry Jam” performance of “Knock Knock” is posted on YouTube:]

I taught the poem to several classes at Portland’s Jefferson High School days before Barack Obama was elected president. I’d spent 24 years teaching high school language arts at this predominantly African American school, and I returned this year to work with the faculty. I left each class in tears because when poetry, like Beaty’s, touches students’ lives in real ways, I am reminded of both the pain and the hope that schools harbor.

“Knock Knock” is constructed in three parts. Beaty begins with the story of the father’s imprisonment, moves to a direct address to the father, “Papa, come home ’cause I miss you,” and ends in a letter that the poet writes to “heal” and “father” himself. The poem, and Beaty’s performance, are so powerful that I didn’t want to interrupt it with instruction or teacher talk before they watched it the first time. I wanted them to feel the poem. My only instruction was, “As you watch the poem, notice what works for you or doesn’t work. Just jot notes, so we can talk about it after we watch it a couple of times.”

After students watched the poem twice, I asked them to take a few silent minutes to write their thoughts about the poem. “Look at the copy of the poem. Think about what you notice about the poem, how you connect with the poem, what poetic devices Beaty used.” Students started off by talking about what they liked about the poem—from content to form. Greg said, “I like how the poem progresses from when he was young and dependent to the point when he got older and stronger.” Jerome said, “He used repetition by repeating the words ‘knock knock.’ Nothing was sugarcoated. I also like that it tells a story of pain. The story wasn’t a nice-feeling, sweet one talking about love or flowers and moonlight. I connected to the story.” Theresa liked “how the end of the poem is like a letter from his father that he wrote himself.” When Shontay said, “I loved the line, ‘Knock, knock down the doors of racism and poverty that I could not,'” many students nodded in agreement. Demetrius spoke up, “This last part makes me think of how much positive things our generation can do. How much potential we have.”

Harriet said, “You know, I really like the part during the letter where he says, ‘We are our fathers’ sons and daughters/But we are not their choices.’ We aren’t the reason they made bad choices. We aren’t part of their choices, and their decisions aren’t our fault.” I was stunned. I had taught this poem for several years with my classes at Grant High School, and I’d never thought about how children might feel like they might bear the burden of guilt for their parents’ “choices.” But Harriet’s comment reminded me that as a child I shouldered a lot of fear about my future based on my family’s history: Would I graduate from high school? Would I go to college when no one else in my family had? Would I get pregnant and be chained to a minimum wage job? Was my father’s alcoholism a genetic stain that could explode my dreams and shackle me to relive my parents’ story?

Harriet’s comment prompted me to share my fears when I was their age, and I asked, “What are your fears? What chains of the past do you drag around with you? What are you afraid of? What do you worry about?” Students wrote lists of their fears. Then we shared. Harriet said, “The women in my family have all had children before they graduated from high school, and I’m going to break that cycle.” When one student opens the door for an honest conversation, others follow, especially if I create the space by responding to the student’s remark instead of rushing past it. So I said, “Yes, I was afraid of that too. Does anyone else have that fear?” A few other young women raised their hands.

Mark said, “My father went to jail, so I can relate to how he felt when his father never came home. A lot of black men could relate to this poem. Like having to teach themselves things because of an absent father.”

Larry said, “My dad went to school at Jefferson. He never graduated, and now he’s in prison. I’m going to break that cycle.” Another student added, “My mother went here too. She had a bad temper, and she got expelled for fighting. I don’t want to get expelled for fighting.” Other students shared their fears: Getting shot, becoming a drug addict, not graduating, losing a parent, not measuring up to their parents’ expectations.

Writing the Poem

To move students to write the poem, I asked students to look at these three parts of the poem, “Read back over each part and write in the margin what the poet is writing about, how you connect to that part, and why you think it changes his writing style in each section.” With a little nudging, students picked up on the story, the direct address and the letter format of the poem. I didn’t labor over this part of the lesson. I wanted to call attention to it, so students could build their poems in a similar style.

I gave them the following assignment: “Taking a page from Daniel Beaty, write a letter poem to yourself, giving yourself the advice you need to hear. Notice how Beaty begins with a story, then moves into the letter part of the poem that he writes to heal himself. In his letter, he lists advice to himself: ‘Shave in one direction, dribble the page with your brilliance.'”

“What advice do you need to hear? What do you need to do differently to succeed in school? In life? Beaty writes of the obstacles that need to be knocked down in his life: Racism, lack of opportunity. Are there obstacles in your life? Perhaps you have your school-, friend-, and home life together, then think of someone else who might need to hear a few words of advice.

“As an adult, there are things I wish my mother would have told me. This is not an indictment against her. Sometimes, children aren’t ready to hear their parents. Also, we grow up in different times, different social periods.”

Then I shared the beginnings of my poem and showed how I started with the apology, then moved from the negative to the positive in the second stanza. I also highlighted Beaty’s lines to use as a frame for the poem:

Dear Linda,
I’m sorry for the nights I left you alone
after your father died.
I’m sorry for the solitary dinners
you ate those nights I chose a man over you.
For every lesson I failed to teach, hear these words:
Don’t marry a man who drinks.
He’ll spend money on booze
instead of the family.
If a man hits you once,
he’ll hit you again.
Pack your bags and leave.
Move on.
When school gets hard,
remember your brilliance.
Diamonds require hard work…

While most students wrote to themselves, a few wrote poems to other people who they thought needed advice. Andrew wrote from his father’s point of view, “As I sit in a tiny cell, it amazes me how the two of us can hardly ever speak or see each other in 16 years, and yet still go through so much together. Don’t do the same idiotic decisions as me. Don’t let the girls, gangs, and drugs ruin both of our lives. I apologize for choosing the streets over my own son.”

Another student’s father had died the night before our assignment. Lester wrote, “I’m sorry for leaving you five years ago without saying goodbye…. Son, do all you can to be better than me. Go to school and learn until your skull cracks. Grow up to be a wonderful father to your kids. Be there for them before they walk to the edge. … Son, I’m glad you’re not here because I’m on a bed with wires attached to me and a machine that beeps every 3 seconds. I have to go because heaven is open, and I got to get in because this is the only way I can see you from a different angle.”

Another student wrote a paragraph in response: “It’s crazy how you love a man who was never there. I just learned not to care. When you say you’re going to come to my games and you don’t come, there’s no disappointment. When you don’t call on my birthday, there’s no disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I love you, but you showed me everything I don’t need to do. … Can you imagine the look on a little boy’s face when the man he looks up to goes to the store for milk and never comes home. … Because of all those broken promises, I love you because you showed me how not to cry. I’m no longer weak.”

Noah’s poem below followed the format and broke it at the same time. I love the way he played with the credit card commercial:

Dear Father,

Pay me!
Pay me well and
pay me now.
Not with your hundreds of thousands
of millions of dollars.
Pay me some damn attention!

My first bike: $87.00
Varsity basketball: $175.00
Having a care: Priceless.

Charge to your card, a hug or even
a pat on the back.
Write me a check for some words of encouragement.

Send me a money order for the missed birthdays.
Your dollars will never be enough, but
Your time is priceless.
Your love is priceless.
—Noah Koné

Students need opportunities to hone their skills, to write essays, to practice becoming academics. They also need opportunities to write about the tough issues in their lives that rarely surface in schools. Beaty’s work opened their veins, so they could write with the blood of their lives.

Linda Christensen directs the Oregon Writing Project at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College and is a Rethinking Schools editor. She is the author of the forthcoming book Teaching for Joy and Justice.