Beyond Safe Harbor

for Shelly F

Blazing, your vision crushes ruts.
A torch of fiery breath
it cuts through the redundancy of nebulous
bullshit that wafts up from calling cracks
forging a force of intentional instruction
delivered with timing

Slabs of color warm bleak corners,
as an opaque fog dissipates,
moving students beyond safe harbor
into lives that synthesize and summarize content
strategizing information, mining text for insight.
Your vision burns and buoys us.
A dragon lady and a heroine in one.

(White lady,
rosebud cheeks,
diminutive powerhouse
with heels,
ultra chic.)

Uncertainty hovers its intangibility over next year’s changes,
as your lessons in strength touch my soul,
growing a pillar inside
that brushes off insignificant remarks
like so many pigeons in a park.

Uncertainty dissipates with clear vision,
flinted by the fire in your eyes,
while strategies blaze pathways through tomorrow
stoked in classrooms

Brenda Warren 2013

Process Notes:
The Whirl words sent me spinning, and I couldn’t figure out where to take them. A trip to Immediate Care kept me from my principal’s retirement party on Saturday, and I decided to work the words into a poem that I could give to her, to let her know that she has impacted my life on a profound level. She is a complex person. Her bottom line is family. Right above that lies student performance in our school. Shelly has helped me become not only the teacher that I am, but the person who I am. She hired me as a literacy teacher after I interviewed for a math tutor position. She believed in me, because of the way I talked about my daughter and the importance of her education in the interview. She taught me to believe in myself. Believe the dragon line. It is true. Believe in her strength; it makes her who she is, and every person who has ever stood in front of her knows what it feels like when it emanates from her. Dragon Lady. Sparrow. Rosebud cheeks.

Poets who read my work might remember the lines white lady, sparrow, rosebud cheeks…. I wrote those in a stream of consciousness exercise thinking of Shelly. Her shoes are a trademark. The phrasing is in a piece I wrote in April 2012. Although the shoes and the powerhouse are Shelly, the rest of the piece is not.  That’s how it works, eh?  Bits and pieces of our lives fall onto screens. Here’s a link to that rap ditty if you’re interested.

And here are those damned Whirl words.

manic chasms


Purple Scaries are swing events. My girlfriends and I used to swing side by side, holding onto the inside chain of each other’s swing as we increased our arcs. When we got high enough, we’d swing our legs toward each other until we could lock knees by crossing our feet. Then we’d let go of each other’s chains and alternate our swinging until our swings twisted together. We called this activity Purple Scaries; we’d twist until we couldn’t keep it going, then put our force into untwisting, only to twist our chains up even tighter the next time, then we’d use our bodies to untwist, pulling our heads in as the bars grew closer, twisting again in the other direction, even harder—over and over again.

Thrill seekers, we were lucky we didn’t smack our heads against the swing set bars. Purple Scaries plague me still, but I don’t share them with my students. I can’t be responsible for the blind stupidity of a thrill seeker, and at 50, if I tried one, I just might puke.

The story about Tiff D in the piece is true. She knows her mother is in jail, but did not know what incarcerated meant until Charles Dickens taught her.


manic chasms 

Purple Scaries twist swings in my mind,
manic and laughing, chains twist round chains,
winding childhood back and forth.
A dizzying affair
hewn from my neighborhood schoolyard,
fused through the halls of today,
annealed in my teaching
manic and persistent.

Tangents wax tales, chased and connected
back to basics.
While the subject verbs the direct object,
we fork through the fodder of our lives,
some of it forlorn, like when David Copperfield
teaches Tiff D that the word “incarcerated”
does not imply reward.

Sudden realizations open chasms to our soul.
Purple Scaries.
That’s what we fall into, that’s what we explore.

Clashing understandings open possibilities for discovery
while manic sand drips through the hourglass
onto the playground, beneath the twisting
swings that drive me to a place
where fear and desire collide
panicked and consuming.

Lunch duty and I find myself
looking up at the Montana sky.

Can Tiff D’s mother sense them from her cell?

Brenda Warren 2012


Visit The Sunday Whirl.


Fight Zone Sestina

A sea of students ebbs and flows through lanes.
Four minutes define time from class to class.
Frenzied, dramatic, intractable time.
Chatting, drinking, peeing, primping, passing.
Concealed smart phones spread rumors and pictures.
Pushing and shoving and venom and threats.

Not all of you students fall prey to threats,
principled young people flock through the lanes.
Contrasting shoves in live streaming pictures
cameras remember your kind decent class.
Orwell’s future is more than thoughts passing.
Since 2005, those cameras keep time.

Privacy’s squandered; recordings hold time.
Serving a purpose, Big Brother eyes threats.
Threatening you who cast them in passing,
threatening you with the truth of the lanes.
Evidence gathered on fighting’s dark class
indisputably fisted in pictures.

Cameras catch all the angles in pictures
stripping dishonesty, showing true time.
Fists with panache saving face with no class.
Status posts start to make good on your threats.
Teachers lose control of flow through the lanes.
Green tiles bisect white alleys for passing.

Last Monday, I monitored first passing.
Hands yanked hair in, as witnessed in pictures
students formed circles in clumps in the lanes,
I pulled at the girls, and screamed to stop time.
Heeding my call, aware of the fight threats,
Mr. Doans, like lightning ran from his class.

He shot down the hall a racer first class,
he rammed through the girls straight in one passing.
His movement so quick, exploded their threats.
Some students snapped it in cell phone pictures.
Down to the office, and not their first time,
we escorted them down separate lanes.

Beatings before class, fist moving pictures
lightning fast passing, made pewter in time.
Hair left like threats lines the alley’s scarred lanes.

Brenda Warren 2012

Process Notes:
I promised a piece about a fight at school, and offer this sestina. The form itself (along with 12 words from The Whirl) played a large role in the direction this piece took. While the form can be somewhat free, I followed a 10 syllable per line rule. While the piece is not what I set out to write, and doesn’t capture the essence of the fight, I like it. Forms open doors to content, it’s surprising. You never know where you’ll wind up.

Each fight at school has started due to public fights on Facebook. The kids then feel a need to save face, and do it publicly at school. I tried to pull these girls apart, and could not. They pulled each other’s heads into punches with their hair. When I yelled for help laughter rose among the ranks. I am grateful for that laughter, because it truly had to have been a spectacle, and it provided brevity for me all week. Students have named the area right outside of my classroom “The Fight Zone,” as they occur there, even though we have a schedule for monitoring. The initiators come from the bathroom at just the right time, and iump their target in the hall. These two girls were taken out of the building in handcuffs. Their faces were pummeled. Both of them.

Another piece of brevity. After each of the girl fights, hair has been left behind. The colleague who saved the day says, “We should collect the hair: To the victor go the spoils!”

Sorry for the long post. This sestina consumed my day. I’m posting it for NaPoWriMo 28. Which means I still need to write something for Sunday.

Go to The Sunday Whirl. Read what some amazing people did with these words.

similes, dogs, and prophets

Luray Flying thinks that cumbersome stands out like that booger on Mrs. Challenger’s nose, dangling there, reluctant to join the murmuring mass of words posted on Challenger’s industrial strength file cabinet. Luray says, “Hey Mrs. Challenger? You print them words on magnetic paper so they won’t stray like Mr. Hurley’s dog?” She knows Mrs. Challenger will appreciate the simile.

Mrs. Challenger cups the backside of her palm around her mouth and sardonically says, “If he wouldn’t pelt it, it wouldn’t stray.” She points to the word pelt, and they know she’s looking for more similes.

Smoothly and slowly, Lester Jones says, “Just like smoke rises steady until sister wind pelts it,” he closes his eyes and sways, “people release dense messages of smoke,” he adds a metaphor, “that float in pelts against the gloaming’s fading sky.”

Lester entrances the girls, and makes Mrs. Challenger smile.
“You have the heart of a poet, Lester. Similes rise like smoke through your words.”

“How about cumbersome?,” Luray asks, pointing to the word hanging on Challenger’s file cabinet like that booger on her nose, “Can you use that word, Lester?” Luray pauses, then swoons, “It’s like a cement block chained to my slender ankles,” she sways her foot in the aisle, then drops it hard, ” . . . cumbersome.”

Lester thinks through his senses, then answers, “The thought of a loser like Hurley pelting a creature like that sly brown dog, weighed cumbersome on the boy’s heart. So he took that dog home with him and fed it good, right after using three feet of chain to collar Hurley up to a tree, where he made him get on his hands and knees and kicked him three or four times in the belly and hindquarters till he yelped like the wretched cur that he is.” Lester holds up his hand, closes his eyes, and shakes his head. Deliberately.

Two weeks later

Lester Jones didn’t do it, he was on the class picnic when Hurley was nabbed, but Lester did give Ted Drummond a map for the deed.

The caption under Hurley’s picture in the News Argus read, “Richard Hurley was found chained to a tree north of town, where he was kicked like a dog and left for dead. Authorities found him after two days with no food or water, and are looking for a masked man with a rifle.”

Hurley’s dog disappeared, and few people know that it is forever eating Alpo on the Drummond family farm out by Utica. And our class? We never speak of it. Not one word. Not one.

But now?

Luray Flying thinks Lester Jones is a prophet.

Brenda Warren 2012

Visit The Sunday Whirl.


Some teachers keep the entitled kids entitled.
Providing them with privileges,
giving them their time,
they polish their own persona
with the praise of prima donnas,
all the while praying that the unkempt kid who never showers
isn’t coming down the hall to talk to them.

(he just doesn’t try)
(he’ll never learn)

That student,
that boy walking down the hall
is not falling through the cracks —
those teachers are pushing him.

Brenda Warren 2012


Shout out to dVerse Poet’s Pub for providing a place to post anything on Tuesdays.  You guys rock!

Super Purple Rhino Boy

for Purple Dude

Happen upon it,
upon it he did
flying so high in the sky,
a snappy hap- happening there up high
unfolding before his eyes,
his eyes,
unfolding before his eyes.

Purple on purple
the rhinos they flew,
lines upon lines of them,
smiles upon smiles of them,
miles and miles glided by
right in front of his eyes,
reflected their light in his eyes.

Luck, luck, lucky he knew he was
to witness the purple procession
every one hundred years they flew
(they flew for his grandfather Lendon).

Misting themselves with lily white clouds
the rhinos, they smiled as they flew.
With their horns up high,
they paraded by
before the young citizen’s eyes,
oh my!
Before the young citizen’s eyes.

One small rhino lagged behind
as trouble invaded his flight
the youth on the ground
saw him circling round
the same as he did in his dreams,
his dreams!
Circling as in his dreams.

The young hero’s heart beat drums in his chest,
‘twas the moment when matter changed states,
molecular magic in circular merging,
circular merging
and purp, purp, purpling,
boy became beast,
and beast became boy,
joy joy joining,
rhino boying
(the same as it did in his dreams
his dreams
merging as in his dreams).

Horn pointing up,
merged power gained,
a new purple champion appeared.
This was the moment he lifted from Earth,
the moment of Super Purple Rhino Boy’s birth!

His dreams played out like games on that day,
when he flew in the ranks of a Rhino Parade,
his very first Rhino Parade
His very first Rhino Parade.

Brenda Warren 2011

Process Notes: I wrote this piece for a specific student. In a written assignment, his superhero was Super Purple Rhino Boy, and then, this past week in his hopes for 2012 he wrote that it would be amazing to see purple rhinos fly. While he may not see purple rhinos fly, he will have this poem. Where there is a boy, there is a story. Purple Dude inspires me to be a better teacher. This piece was inspired by his writing. How cool is that?! I’ll read this poem to Purple Dude and his classmates on Wednesday, so it can cast a purple light on their holiday break.  LOL

Lendon is my husband’s name (and his grandfather’s). I used it because I liked the off-rhyme with procession. Having a grandfather witness the same event as our citizen anchors the story in family history.

Visit The Sunday Whirl for more poems using these 12 words:

Vernon Reads

for PN and Sherman Alexie

There’s this student,
in my classroom,
quiet, observant,
too cool for school.
Vernon reads because The Absolutely
True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
circles hoops around his adolescent brain
toppling his first weeks of school
I don’t “read”itude.

Gathering his ancestors,
words channel compassion,
weaving threads into familiarity,
weaving familiarity into a yearning to read more words.

Forgiveness hovers beneath
broken promises,
trails of tears, and treaties.

Every sign points toward his schooling’s demise,
when Vernon opens books to causes
beyond the intentional negligence of an educational system
that stripped his grandparents
of everything they’d never be again.

His eyes rise from Junior’s story
when RJ, this toppled white kid ,
enters late. Broken by years of hallway ridicule,
broken by a family that you do not want to know,
RJ’s eyes scan the classroom,
it’s a “free seating” day
and a pretty seventh grade girl occupies
his eighth grade seat.
With palpable anxiety he stops and
drops his eyes to his feet.
I move to get up,
when Vernon’s voice rises
deep and gentle, above his book,
“Hey, buddy, sit here,”
he pulls back the chair next to his own.

Blinking tears down into the shallows
of my lower lids, my eyes return
to the book I am reading in class,
thinking of the power of story,
thinking of the power of connection,
thinking of the power Vernon gave RJ,
shouldering his angst,
offering him a Friday home.

Vernon is a hero.
He eats up The Absolutely
True Diary of a Part Time Indian,
deepening his understanding
of what it means to not fit in.
Like Junior, no matter which direction
RJ turns, bolts of misunderstanding
burst in other people’s eyes.
Vernon watches.
He knows it is true.

RJ draws bold dark lines through the pages
of his classroom journal,
while Vernon keeps Junior’s story
quietly to himself.

Chuckling every now and then,
Vernon’s dark eyes shine.

Brenda Warren 2011
Process Notes:
I pulled the words for this week’s wordle from The Powwow at the End of the World, by Sherman Alexie. Visit The Sunday Whirl for more pieces that integrate Alexie’s words.

Process Notes:
One of my students who claimed to never read, is reading Sherman Alexie’sThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. We discussed the book’s mature content, and my expectation that he not point out inappropriate parts to other kids during his reading. I also phoned home to get parental permission for him to read it, because the content is mature. It is a story that Native American kids “get.” They love it. Many of my Blackfoot, Chippewa, and Cree students move back and forth between the reservation schools, and our school. The book’s narrator, Arnold Spirit aka Junior moves to an all white school, so the connection is strong, and Alexie is hilarious.

I wrote the first draft of this piece last night, and then watched Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay for Smoke Signals. He based it on stories in his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The movie is on Netflix. It is hysterical, heartbreaking, and liberating, and the soundtrack is memorable. One of the main characters, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, reminds me of Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. I woke up this morning, and read The Powwow at the End of the World aloud, trying to channel the lilt of Thomas’s incessant storytelling in my reading. After reading it, I revised this piece, and added to it to tackle that wordle list. Finally I changed the names to protect my students’ identities.

Mr. Alexie, if you happen across these words, thank you.  Your writer’s voice turns young people into readers.  Face keeps me returning to its pages again and again, I love volcano and its mosquito armageddon.  🙂

hey bully

hey bully
you coward
you strange wasted slouch of humanity
screw your cheap revolution
stop pulverizing people smaller than you

spinning cracked ideas of power
weakens your granite façade

exile desperation to the streets
stomp on the disenchanting garbage
you spread like ash

cleanse the hollows of your soul
clear some space for light to shine

School starts soon. That and this week’s wordle words at The Sunday Whirl, got me thinking about bullies, I always have at least one.  There is a big poster in my classroom that starts with “Bullies are sad little people inside….”  It engenders some interesting discussion with my seventh and eighth grade students.