Use Poetry as a Conversation Starter

Shin Yu Pai, Grants & Workplace Giving Manager at ArtsFund

Rhina Espaillat’s poem “Significant Other” can be used to start a conversation about exclusion, race, ethnicity and culture.

Significant Other

This is for you, Miss Ridley, who made clear
in ‘forty-seven—high school, junior year–
that you would not pronounce, much less condone,
barbaric names like ours. You made it known
at once that we would change, like obscure books
translated. And our disbelieving looks
at rollcall never altered your idea
that I’d learn to be “RYE nah,” as Sophia
Papadopoulos must answer to “Soh FIE ah”
and shy Maria Guzman became “Maw RYE ah.”

You could not whittle us into those new
fictions remade in your own image, true
daughters of Albion; we were marked by then
by sound and sign, the legacies of men
and women of all stripes, from every shore.
We recognized ourselves, the names we bore,
solid as coins history had imprinted,
unwilling to be melted and reminted.
But every morning, doggedly set right,
you would repeat the wrong. You were not bright.

How did it end? Not badly: six refused,
at last, to answer “Present.” You accused
us of impertinence, and sent us to
the Principal herself. We never knew
her verdict; we were quietly dismissed
after an uneventful hearing, and the list
bearing our names and her few notes remained
on her oak desk. Our records went unstained.
And by the next day’s rollcall we discerned
change in your method, and our names returned,
pronounced not well, but, well, the best you could.

We learned a lot from you: to define “good”
in broader terms than yours; how to defend
ourselves within what law we would amend;
how to make room, among us all, for each;
how not to be afraid; how not to teach!
How some, recalled for scenes we do not miss,
give us our arms. Too late, I give you this.

Agenda, vol. 41

-Rhina P. Espaillat