In December, I spent a day with Mrs. Debelius' Sandy Valley eighth graders. The students had read Thanhhà Lai's novel, Inside Out and Back Again, about a Vietnamese refugee family in the 1970s, told in verse from the point of view of ten-year-old Ha. The students were quite advanced in that they had read the novel, which was presented in poetry, centered on the page.
So they were all set to write PERSONA POEMS, poems in which the poem is presented as a character who is not the poet. One of my favorite persona poems is Ezra Pound "The River Merchant's Wife." You can find it here
We began by reviewing the novel, and the students had a real feel for the time and place, and especially for the characters. I presented a list of characters, and they suggested a few others. We discussed using specific details from the book and details from their imagination which fit, and they drafted. They were so prepared for the work that many finished in the class period and read their drafts to the class. They were very moving. Here are just a few of them:
It’s not that funny By Seven
was attending my class.
Assuming that she is clueless to English, I repeat my name 3 times, louder each time, so she could understand.
She repeats it back to me, holding down the S in Miss and Scott. I stared at her, as it wasn’t much of an achievement.
She points at herself and says Ha Was my name funny? I suppose it sounds strange to her, since she is Vietnamese. I laughed back. She stared in confusion, pointing to herself once again and saying Ha I awkwardly avoid eye contact, trying my best to force another hard laugh.
North Korean Pilot
by Evelyn P
The ship was almost dipping into the water,
As people rushed back and forth on the deck
The panic was clear in their eyes even from where I circled in the sky.
I quickly reached for the com
Making sure the commander knew that I meant no harm.
If I stayed up in the helicopter one moment longer,
They may spot me.
And everyone on that ship would be in danger.
More so than they are now.
With shaking hands I unclipped my harness,
Preparing to jump.
The bone chilling water took my breath away.
I bobbed in the water, taking in a shuddering breath
Slowly, I made my way to the ship, shoved closer to my destination
When the helicopter crashed into the water behind me.
My arms ached as I pulled myself onto the deck.
With shaking legs I stood, looking at the people I would
Have to tell
That their home was destroyed.
I saluted the commander, saying the words
I had practiced only minutes before.
The ship was silent.
The calm before the storm.
The Woman Who Tried to Overthrow Herself
I am tired.
I am tired of War.
I am tired of traveling.
I am tired of the people.
I am tired of everything.
I just want all of this to be over.
Saigon is already gone.
I do not want to die but at the same time everything bad would be gone.
It is like the water was calling to me, I just want to be in the sea.
Tonight I will start engineering school
to become what I am meant to be.
There will be many long nights
but it will be well worth it.
Maybe I am good at fixing cars
but it limits my potential.
The truth is
I only started fixing cars
so that Cowboy would bring us into his home.
I hope Mother is happy
because she has always wanted an engineer.
I am scared Mother will be disappointed
by my other brothers
who seem to cut corners
In their college careers.
By, Chase E.
Hi my name is Charlie Watson. This Vietnamese girl calls me “Pink Boy” and I am happy to be the meanest kid in school. This new Vietnamese girl is really mean to me. I try to punch her and she moves my arm and puts me down on the ground.
His Silent Voice
By Taylor E.
“The Oldest, Quang, Was Always There For His Younger Siblings.”
I was there for them even when they hated me, they looked up to me.
I go to work to disappear from all the stress at home,
I try to leave but I always come back, they are my family, my home.
I am mostly the one that never gets asked what’s wrong because I am the oldest. Nothing is ever wrong.
I am supposed to be okay, I am supposed to be calm.
But I always help them whether I am hurting or not.
That’s why I am the oldest.
By Aleen D.
This poor Vietnam girl, ha is her name.
So mature but clueless in this big world.
The best I can do to comfort this young child is with a soft tight hug.
She tells me about the bullies at school.
This poor child deserves better.
By Rose R.
Such a young, strong, beautiful child
Her ¨s¨es are strong like the sound of a golden river
You can tell she is not from this area, somewhere unique
Still, I will do my best to make her feel at home.
By Hailey H
Disappointed to leave
Feeling horrible for my best friend
Our papaya tree
Leaving everything important
Far away from war
Leaving with my family
Out of the place I used to call home.
By Constance B
I have such a hard time.
My fingers bleed through the cotton bandages.
I spend hours forging materials.
My husband dances in my memories.
I look down at my shining purple amethyst ring.
The pins and needles now puncture my fingers but I feel no pain anymore.
I have lost my only reminder of my long lost love.
The ring has disappeared and it is gone for good.
The tears I manage not to shudder, for I know my children will worry.
My children won't get a good education…
They won’t find a good paying career…
We will get ridiculed by looks and faith…
But most of all I worry that I will never be able to think about my country.
Moving forward I must be strong, for I can not change people's thoughts.