When Megan McNamer called me in September 2009 to see if I would be interested in teaching poetry to fourth graders at Central School in Helena, Montana, who knew what a life-changing moment that would be? I wasn’t even sure about taking the job. I had only taught university students and teaching young students wasn’t something I was interested in. But I was appalled by the poetry education of my son: in sixth grade, the poetry he was learning in middle school was, I repeated, “Three little pumpkins sitting on a gate, the first one said, “Oh my it’s getting late…”
This? I thought, to middle-schoolers, filled with raging hormones and passionate questions about identity? Pumpkins?
So, after training quickly with Sheryl, I copied my college poetry curriculum and started teaching those unsuspecting fourth graders in Helena. And, of course, I was hooked. The first time I saw a child discover herself on the page, I was transformed. The first time I saw a young boy, Sean, I’ll never forget him, read the poem about visiting his mother in jail, I was stunned. The first time the young woman wrote one of my favorite poems still—“Ode to the Alphabet” I knew I had to keep teaching kids. No cynicism here. No ironic distance. There was a purity to these students’ experience of writing that was completely exhilarating.
Five years and hundreds of student poems later, the MWC board asked me to become the executive director.
This, in contrast, was an experience of pure terror. Life as an executive director is not conducive to sleep. I love this organization and was passionate about its mission, I respected MWC’s accomplished writers and board and I only hoped I was up to the task. And I wasn’t. At least, not by myself. That is because this organization is a true collaboration with a shared vision, because people jump in when the going gets tough—as during a pandemic—it was all possible. This shared vision, this shared mission is the great strength of the Missoula Writing Collaborative. That, and the fact that every year, we help people experience what we believe in: the joy of writing. That joy is why so many of our writers remain as teachers for so long. We love the passion and the play that we see in the classrooms; we love the transformations that happen in these twelve-week visits to young lives.
When I started out, we were in 24 schools, with 8 writers. In 2023, we will be in more than 40 schools in western Montana with an expanded staff and budget from those early days. With the MWC board and writers, we created the Children’s Poetry Map (at the Missoula Public Library), hometown poetry posters, river posters—and we navigated a pandemic. And we have had a lot of fun along the way: lawn party at Lois’s, pizza party writer meetings, and oh, so many readings in school cafeteria, libraries, gymnasiums, and classrooms. Thank you all for a wonderful journey. Sheryl Noethe always notes that “Poetry saves lives.” Of course it does. I started writing poetry with Richard Hugo in workshop in 1975 and while my poetry has morphed into prose, sharing poetry with the state I love has been an amazing gift.