“What do you do to calm down when you’re angry? Slam the door, yell and stomp? How do you get control over those feelings?” I asked a fourth grade class last week.
“Pet my dog,” one student said.
“Listen to music.”
“Play video games.”
It was the last day of an elementary poetry residency and we were looking at a model poem about feelings. My feelings.
When I was in fourth grade, anger was adult territory. In my family, anger in a child was not considered productive, or healthy. But I was angry sometimes. When a friend chose someone else to be their line partner at school. When I wanted to be alone and my younger brother wouldn’t stop following me.
“I hate him!” I’d say.
Instead of giving me space to talk through my feelings, the adults in my life chastised. “What a terrible thing to say! Apologize to your brother,” they insisted.
I wish my adults had heard about the train tunnel analogy. Blogger Katie M. McLaughlin came up with this metaphor for coaching a child through big emotions:
She explains, “Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains traveling through them. We have to move all the way through the darkness to get to the…calm, peaceful light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is that we well-meaning parents and caregivers often attempt to intercept our children on their journey through an emotional tunnel.”
McLaughlin says that encouraging a child to sit with and process those feelings builds resilience and emotional intelligence.
How did I self-soothe and reset as a child? By going outside. I was an expert tree-climber, but my favorite place to work through big feelings was the overgrown forsythia bush in our yard. I’d crawl under the branches that cascaded to the ground. There I’d sit, hidden from view, until I travelled through the dark tunnel of my feelings and was ready to go back inside.
I hadn’t thought much about the forsythia until my friend Michael Rothenberg sent me an illustration of a bird. During the pandemic, we’d begun a creative collaboration. Michael was drawing a series of strange and colorful monsters. I was writing poems in response.
This magical bird stumped me… until I thought about being a child. About being so angry, I needed run outside where I could breathe and think.
This is the memory I called up in “Green Cave.”
Sometimes I get so mad, the feelings can’t stay inside.
Before I know what I’m doing, my feet run for the back door.
I duck under the forsythia bush. In summer,
the branches arch to make a cave, exactly my size.
Once, I was under there, poking in the dirt,
when two blue feet slipped under the leafy branches.
A monstrous bird walked into my hiding spot. It opened its beak.
The monster sang about being so angry
that it feels like a million arrows are prickling your skin.
Its wings beat to the song’s rhythm like a soft, calm breath.
Ever since then, when I’m so mad I can’t stay inside,
I go to the green cave and listen for the monster’s song.
Eventually, we gathered the art/poem pairings into a book. Welcome to Monsterville will be published by Apprentice House Press in April.
Now I am sharing these poems and Michael’s art with schools. In our conversations about the monsters, children have opened up about their social emotional lives: How they reset when anger overwhelms them. How pride shines like a light inside us, bright enough for the whole world to see. Their poems have been funny, honest, and inventive. One fourth grader wrote of their excited monster, “His hair is flying out / like on a stormy day. / He’s running outside. / ‘Get out of my way!’”
Reading or writing down a poem can guide children—and adults—out of anger or nervous excitement and into the state of quiet self-awareness expressed at the end of “Green Cave.” If we are sometimes trains traveling through a tunnel of difficult emotions, perhaps the lines of a poem are one track that leads us back to ourselves.
Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her award-winning children’s books include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. She is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council and teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her latest poetry collection for kids is Welcome to Monsterville.
The late Michael Rothenberg was the editor and publisher of the online literary magazine BigBridge.org, cofounder of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and cofounder of Poets In Need, a nonprofit assisting poets in crisis.