My precocious start at poetry writing was inspired by Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden, and other stories of girls living in isolated childhoods, and surviving, by the strength of their inner voices. Through writing, I could transcend the mundane exterior of my experience, and be a very, very deep person. It was and remains the foundation of my confidence.
At the same time, it was and remains what makes me odd. As a writer, and especially as poet, I have always found myself rejecting those labels. No one wants to be accused of comparing themselves to Shakespeare or Sylvia Plath*, which can feel inevitable given the scant number of poets with a foot in popular culture. And so, my response to “Are you a poet?” still sounds something like:
“Oh. Me? Um…yea, I guess.”
To an extent, I am still trying to hide from my father that I did not earn a certificate in plumbing, per his advice, but, rather, a four-year degree in English, and $20k in debt. Yet, that degree has been my ticket from the town to the city, from walking in the rain to, well, more walking in the rain; to becoming the extraordinary YA heroine that I envisioned myself to be. Now that my bildungsroman is complete, my story is looking for supporting characters in the form of friends, mentors, and chosen family.
Houses. Families. Friends. Pets. Trees. Flowers. Shops. These were the most common responses by the 2nd and 3rd grade students of Trillium Charter School, at the beginning of an 8-week Geography unit centered on this question.
When I was their age, my teachers posed more straightforward questions like “What are the 50 states and their capitals?” AL – Montgomery, AK – Juneau, AZ – Phoenix. Yet, I did not have the frame of reference to comprehend the totality of a city, let alone a whole state or nation.
Kids these days aren’t much different, because comprehension of size, scale, and spatial relations is more developmental than generational. At ages 7-9, our world’s center is the place where we live, while its outermost limit is about a 1 mile radius, or the length of the route from home to school. Studying national or global geography, then, means matching unfamiliar names to unfamiliar flags, flowers, and animals.
By centering our curriculum on the neighborhood, I was able to teach concepts rather than facts, guiding students into the weeds of new urbanism. Examples of transit-oriented development, mixed-use development, creative placemaking, and urban farming lay just outside our doors, and so we went. Enter – the Overlook neighborhood. The best case study we could have asked for. No membership to Oregon Historical Society or Nat Geo required.
What made the unit all the more appropriate was the coincidence of its timing with May Bike/Walk to School Month. It kicked off with a pedestrian safety assembly with prizes provided by PBOT. Each of 3 classes took five walking field trips in Overlook, themed on Infrastructure, Green Space, Goods, Services, and Arts & Entertainment. At the end of the unit, students had identified 30 points of interest within walking distance of Trillium.
During the Infrastructure themed week, I instructed students to keep a tally of hazards specific to heavy congestion areas, such as cars parked on the sidewalk, construction zones, and any other factor that they felt threatened their safety. Ultimately, the most noted offender was litter, particularly broken glass and cigarette butts.
This prompted an in-class discussion about public health and a brainstorm of ways to take it into our own hands. In partnership with the high school Leadership class, we organized Trillium Cleanup Day, timed to benefit attendees of the Vanport Mosaic Festival, hosted by our neighbor, the IFCC.
From our Green Space themed week, emerged the distinction between public and private land, thanks to Overlook residents Marci Macfarlane and Jan-Marc Baker. Marci described the process of transforming Portland Water Bureau property to park space, through a commitment to stewardship by artists in residence, herself included; which planted seeds of a Patton Square HydoPark in our minds. Jan Marc explained why he puts as much effort into tending the right of way as his
front yard – because it provides public and environmental benefits, inviting hungry passersby and pollinators rather than let it lay dormant.
Students identified Hobbies Unlimited and Patton Maryland as the best businesses for families. Gree, who lives in the neighborhood, goes to Hobbies Unlimited all the time. In his final reflection, he wrote: “I once got an agate rock that is from the Columbia River. It is really big and has flat parts.”
After a long career driving for Trimet, Hobbies’ new owner, Rick, was glad to step in at a critical moment in its eighty year history. He used to visit when he was a child, and knows that community engagement, particularly with youth groups, will be key to keeping the lights on for the decades to come.
Molly, Irma and Mihai wrote about Patton Maryland. “It is not one of those big restaurants like McDonald’s. They have food for all eaters, vegans, and vegetarians. The menu is inspired by the foods the manager
remembers his mom making when he was a kid. He gave us each a pork sandwich and chocolate milk to try. We rated it five stars.” General Manager, Mark Hernandez, was kind enough to send students back with coupons for staff. Now, I can say that I rate it five stars, too!
In the absence of theaters and music venues, our Arts & Entertainment themed week focused on public art. Pascale, who lives in the neighborhood, reflected “My neighborhood has a lot of public art, which is great, because it brings community together. People sometimes need a reason to come together.” I sent one group North on Interstate, to view pieces in the Trimet Public Art Program at Killingsworth Station, Ockley Green Middle School, and Rosa Parks Station.
On their way, the once community hub now construction zone, Interstate Lanes, stopped everyone in their [Max] tracks. Many had had birthday parties and other family memories at the lanes. We looked at the NO TRESPASSING signs and couldn’t help but chuckle at where someone had written I LOVE BOWLING. Back in class, a debate on the differences between graffiti and public art would ensue. It would not be the last. At the end of the unit, I divided students into groups and asked them to design their own “great” neighborhoods.
Just like a real neighborhood association, they were asked to strike a balance between what their community members would need and what they would want, before making final development decisions. Ultimately, there were still a handful of candy and toy stores. What makes a great neighborhood? Tiny House. Biketown Station. Community Square. Weird Stuff. Can you tell they go to school in Overlook?