Around 10 a.m. one morning on April 5, 2007 — during National Poetry Month — a huge yellow bus maneuvered the tight turns on Wildwood Lane and pulled onto the small park in front of our house. Big letters on its side said “Pinellas District Schools” — but what was it doing here? Maybe the driver stopped at the Chattaway and then got lost. Not likely, but we stepped outside to see if we could be of any help.
As we walked down our pathway, the integrated faces of young students were smudged against the windows, like Monet’s paintings of lily pads. A neatly dressed young man stepped out of the bus. His name was Bill Barlow, and he was taking his class of 4th grade students for a tour of the nearby Dalì Museum. In his morning class on poetry, a student had asked, “Are all poets dead?” Good question.
He’d told them no, and said on the way to the Dalì he’d show them the house of a real live poet.
“Should I let them pinch me?” I asked. “What school is it?” Maybe it was one of the schools our kids had gone to.
“Less than a mile away, on 22nd Avenue,” he told me. “The James Sanderlin School.” That gave me goosebumps, and a flashback. It was poetic synchronicity.
The last time I’d been on a bus was in the summer of 1968, when I was gently dumped into one by two perspiring policemen who were loading it with marchers supporting St. Pete’s striking garbagemen. Blocked by riot police as we approached City Hall, we'd sat down in the middle of the street. Driven to the Clearwater jail, we were fingerprinted and crowded into cells with not enough beds and mattresses to handle the motley crowd of sanitation workers, students, teachers, and others. Nevertheless, we spent the long hours singing “We Shall Overcome” and other songs, until bailed out by the young civil rights lawyer, Jim Sanderlin (1929-1990), who later became the first black judge in Pinellas County. He was a great and gentle person, who devoted his life to our city, and the cause of racial justice and equality. I felt honored to talk to the students at Sanderlin School.
I got on the bus and asked, “How many of you like to write poetry?” Basically, they all yelled “I do” with doubtful veracity but great enthusiasm.
“What big fibbers,” I told them. “Fibbers,” they cried. I told them when I was their age I wrote poems about bugs to scare my sisters. “Bugs!” they shouted. They were getting worked up. Some boy added “Boogers!” and I remembered repeating “Badgers and bidgers and bodgers” over and over, after reading A. A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young” for the first time, when I was very young. Milne’s anarchical playfulness with language still delights me.
The children were now talking all at once, so we let them out of the bus to run around the park and use up some of that energy, creative or not.
The school, Bill Barlow told us, was an IB (International Baccalaureate) Primary School. Its stated aim is “to recognize our common humanity,” which I think is an unstated aim of poetry as well.
Some of the children were kicking up leaves in the gutter, uncovering a trove of wriggling nightcrawlers.
“It’s a worm, ugh!”
“Don’t pick it up, you’ll get germs!”
Of course a little boy picked one up, but quickly flung it away.
“Worms, germs!” someone shouted, and others joined in.
A little girl said, almost thoughtfully, “Squirms.”