Hold Me Closer, Tiny Stanza: Why Poetry is Essential for Anti-Racism

Full disclosure — my school received a D+ for Diversity on the California Niche high school rankings. Our entire student body is Jewish.

While at first I chuckled at that score, I do actually take issue with it. Even at a modern Orthodox all girls day school, diversity exists beyond just being Ashkenazi or Sephardic, beyond first, second, or third generation, beyond Russian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Argentinian, or Ethiopian, beyond speaking Hebrew, Farsi, French, Spanish, Yiddish, or Arabic, beyond Levite or Kohen or Chabad, beyond even the Valley or Beverly Hills.

But what of the diverse student body whom I teach? Yes, they are united in a shared faith, which I am blessed to witness every day Baruch HaShem. But they are also united in a shared community that extends beyond their neighborhoods or souls and well into the classrooms on our campus. And that’s no accident.

It’s systemic, institutional even.

I saw the fruit of such unity during my first all-school Purim chagiga two years ago. One of my many talented colleagues took to the piano and ushered us into a sing along; by the time he played Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, a crowd of students and teachers were gathered, belting out “blue jean baby,” “pirate smile,” and of course “Jesus freaks.” Bernie Taupin’s poetry had done what all poetry can do — connect people.

Poetry does what all schools should do.

While the education community is scrambling to update accreditation checklists of W.A.S.C. and other governing bodies to promote explicit inclusion of anti-racism standards, while local private, religious, and charter schools are facing a serious reckoning from BIPOC alumni for years of systemic racism, while brave students are speaking up about the adolescent trauma experienced because of institutions not seeing their lives as mattering, I listen.

I cry. I rage. I read and reflect and sometimes write. But mostly I listen.

Poems too ask to be heard. The word stanza in Italian means room. When we encounter a stanza, no matter how tiny, we are being invited by the poet into a room, an intimate space, an invented word-chamber intended for connection. Perhaps a classroom where we learn together the private meditations of life’s musicality… and pain.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins portrayed poetry as a hedonist pursuit consisting of seven pleasures, but my post-Zoom, post-COVID, post-George Floyd self sees poetry as so much more. Poetry, I argue, is essential to the anti-racism movement, and here’s why:

Poetry increases our existence. It magnifies our being. It clarifies our knowing. It is an exploration of the myriad pathways toward others, toward self, toward the terrain of understanding and, ultimately, empathy. Like an avid bird-watcher strolling a wooded path through Central Park, like a jogger winding his way through a Georgia neighborhood, and like sacred breath tunneling urgently toward the lungs, every good poem awakens us.

The white space and black ink are both shaped and shaping.

The page is an invitation from the poet, and the reader, should she accept, enters in hoping to be changed. After all, a poem is at heart a rhetorical piece; each element is intentional and, like an education, expected to be meaningful. The painstaking selection of each word as well as its placement on the page is wholly significant. The syntactical choices bring life and beg response. The reader, if she’s holding up her end of the deal, shifts into altered expectations and assumptions. Nothing is accidental, and everything is beautiful. The good poem changes us the way a good school should.

But so much depends on the organization of white space and ink.

Thoughtful organization requires vigilance. Poetry too requires concentration, heightened attention, authentic focus. But before any of us can be truly alert, we have to know where we stand. When we approach poem, we look to the title, the point of view, the situation. We plant our feet in the speaker’s intent in order to allow language to move our minds. Once we know where we stand, we can focus.

Young students who are blessed to attend a good school, know where they stand.

My current students exude a confidence in themselves like I’ve never seen before. I have thought long and hard about this phenomenon, and in light of the systemic racism being exposed at schools across the country, I have clarity about the good work happening at my yeshiva. While supporting students might be easier at a school with a D+ in Diversity, there’s no taking away from our leadership’s commitment to the school’s mission. In short, it is a good school because it shapes and is shaped by its entire student body.

Jewish day schools do many things well, but what they do best is educate their students about who they are, where they came from, and what they represent. Courses in Jewish history, Halakah, the Holocaust, Israel, Jewish literature, Navi, Torah, Talmud, Ivrit, and much more establish each student’s place in a larger community, in the timeline of the Jewish people, in a vital understanding of their identity.

Not enough schools embrace this approach. Period. And while I know it’s more complicated than all that, I think other schools could learn from this model of effectively serving the demographics of their campuses. But these changes take concentration, attention, and focus — the very habits required by poetry.

When we read a poem, we pause as the poet paused, slide our tongue as the poet slid her tongue, and breathe as the poet breathed. Empathy develops. Suddenly we breathe for Eric Garner, we breathe for George Floyd. We breathe the shared human desire for justice.

I’ve enjoyed the beautiful music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin for decades, and I recognize the magic of their intimate creative partnership. It’s reminiscent of the intimacy between the poet and her reader which I argue is not unlike the intimacy between a school and its students. Both produce an experience that is corporal, spiritual, and strangely immortal.

The good song or poem, like the good school, reveals a portrait of the state of our souls, and the good reader looks closely at that portrait. We must enter the tiny stanzas, hold the tiny dancers of our souls. Until we can honestly do that, we will not realize that most of our souls, mine included, deserve a D+.

And until we see that need for systemic change, we cannot begin the grueling work anti-racism requires in both our hearts and our schools. Baruch HaShem and Thank G-d! 

Check out this duet… it’s pure poetry.

Published by candicekelsey1

I was the nominally Catholic girl who loved helping my friends study for their B'not Mitzvah. I was the English major who obsessively read Holocaust literature. I was the law student who studied abroad in Jerusalem instead of Rome. I was the twenty-five year old who studied Judaism in order to know G-d. I was the thirty year old who unexpectedly met Jesus one magical summer midnight in a Tennessee living room. Now I'm a Christian English teacher at an Orthodox Jewish girls school. And I want to write about it...

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  1. Candice,
    Thanks for an inspirational read on this day that I begin leading a school in a country with a deep and complex past. It’s my students’ stanza I enter; I will heed your advice to listen.


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