Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools
(Dzanc Books, 2017)
Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools, Peter Markus’s teaching memoir, is warm, patient, and wise—an enchanting “how-to” sparkling with pedagogical gems. The book follows Markus as he teaches poetry for InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a nonprofit program that brings arts education to inner city Detroit elementary school students. A gifted teacher, Markus shows his students how to “look inside their pencils,” “see with their third eye,” and “build a house of words.” Along the way, he beautifully demonstrates how to set a world-affirming sense of wonder at the center of one’s life.
In the captivating first chapter, “Mr. Pete and the Twelve-Legged Purple Octopus,” Markus takes the reader through his first day teaching for InsideOut. As “Mr. Pete”—not “Mr. Markus”—he rushes into the classroom, late on purpose. “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me,” he says. The students beg to hear the story. After employing a number of playful put-offs (“Are you sure you want to hear it?” “You’re not going to believe it when I tell you,” “I was sitting in my car, right outside your school, right there on Ferry Street…Does anyone in this room live on Ferry Street?”), he at last lets the students in on what he was witness to: a twelve-legged purple octopus.
“I wish I could bring that twelve-legged purple octopus into this room with me,” he says.
Then, through language, he proceeds to do exactly that:
“The twelve-legged purple octopus,” I say, “it was so big,” I say, “his purple head would be too big to fit in through this door.”
“That’s a big head,” one boy says.
I nod. Yes it is.
“Now, I don’t know how much you know about octopuses,” I say, “but an octopus, unlike all of us,” I say, “they have real soft heads.”
I put my hands on top of my head and tell the students to do the same.
“Our heads are hard,” I say. “But an octopus’s head is soft. So soft,” I say, that if I were to get up behind that twelve-legged purple octopus, and if I were to run my right shoulder against it with all of my might, its purple head would, after a while, pop in through this classroom door.”
I make a popping sound with my mouth.
Like magic, that twelve-legged purple octopus’s big and soft purple head has popped in through the classroom door.
The students ohh and ahh.
I go on.
Markus’s lively classroom walkthroughs, which run throughout the book, mesmerize. Many end in writing prompts. Excerpts from student poems often follow, showcasing lines that are humorous, touching, and profound: “Beautiful is a silver crab going to school in the snow,” “In the palm of my hand I see stars that are singing in the sky,” “My brain is a house with a front door that is always open,” “I am a pumpkin shooting out seeds at the man with the knife who is getting ready to carve me up.” The students’ stunning poetry is a reminder that wherever there’s a willing teacher and a willing student, there’s a two-way street—each can show the other newly vital ways of seeing.
Not every chapter keeps to the classroom. In “Beyond the Blue of the Sky,” Markus shares a kind of artist’s origin story about when he first heard his inner voice at nine years old. In “Finding Your Voice,” he includes a poetic folktale about Bluebird, who loses his song. These formal shifts demonstrate Markus’s range. (An accomplished writer, he has a novel and several story collections under his belt). But the most emotionally resonant moments find us with his students, particularly two troubled kids who initially resist Markus’s teaching style: a boy who declares that he has a “blind third eye” and a girl who declares that “nothing is beautiful.” These students give the reader glimpses of the shadows cast by a devastated Detroit. “It’s true that many of the students I work with live in neighborhoods that are less than beautiful: burned-down and rundown houses, trash, castoff furniture,” Markus writes. “You’ve heard it before, seen it before, I’m sure. I’m not telling you anything new or eye-opening when I tell you that it’s a difficult reality that these kids have to face.” His approach to these two students is downright inspiring. In the case of the boy with the blind third eye (who argues, essentially, that he’s lost the will to use his imagination), Markus leads him, through a series of gentle questions, into telling a story about how he came to be “blinded.” The boy uses his imagination to talk about how he lost his imagination. His third eye was shot out by Cupid, he tells the class, as punishment for saying something cruel to his mother. Later, the boy opens up in a big way—he writes a poem about his mother’s death, a breakthrough. Markus, in awe, reflects on the forces at work:
The way I see it, a transfer of power took place through the writing of this poem. Call it another form of poetic transformation. The boy with the blind third eye proved, without a doubt, that he could see. He saw with his heart. He reached down into a place that is more inward than is safe to go. And here, from that place of silence and grief, he returned to us a poem of compassion. And because of this, because the boy dared to do so, the spirit of his mother lives on—through the poem, through the poet. The mother here doesn’t have a story unless her boy gives it back to her through the power of his voice.
Markus’s tone might be too earnest for some, just as it occasionally is for his most skeptical students. But “poetic transformation,” he proves, is not possible without a principled commitment to sincerity. Students give what teachers give. On every page, Markus’s message is: Give bravely.
The book is peppered with quotes from well-known writers and artists: Jack Gilbert, Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, T.S. Eliot, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Pablo Neruda, Henry Miller, John Lennon, Markus’s friend John Rybicki (“the most inspiring writing teacher I’ve ever seen teach”), and quite a few others. These quotes crown important points or lay the bricks for sturdy lesson plans. And yet, one might hope that in future editions, a more diverse selection of writers might be included, offering readers the chance to hear from more of the women and writers of color that Markus brings to his students.
“I want to teach these kids more than just how to write a poem,” Markus writes. “I have my eyes and heart set on the bigger things, on the larger issues, on the other side of the poem.” This seemingly abstract goal—to take students to “the other side of the poem”—is concretely achieved in Inside My Pencil. Step by step, Markus shows his students (and by extension, the readers) how to make this possible in a joyous, moving, and meaningful way. Because of this, Markus will remind readers of the great teachers from their own lives, the devoted men and women who propel their students to the subjects beyond the subject, whose teachings become more urgent with time, not less. As is true for every life-changing teacher, however, Markus is an innovative original, his prowess piping straight from his commitment to being true to who he is. On the first page, he declares that teaching is “where and when I am most pure to who I am and what I was born to do.” To learn to look for where and when you’re most yourself—this is one of the many lessons that Inside My Pencil imparts, and even more impressively, enacts.