For Kobe

by Cindi on January 31, 2020

I have taught an “Introduction to Poetry” lesson during every one of my 30+ years of teaching, and I have heard the groans and the sighs and the exasperated moans of middle schoolers during every one of those years at the mere mention of what can be a difficult genre for them. Today, though, there were no groans as I began the lesson with, “Let’s talk about Kobe.”

I had them all, eyes wide, some already glistening with tears, all wanting to share what they knew: “I heard they found him with his arms wrapped around his daughter”… “He played all twenty years with the Lakers”… “He was named MVP of the NBA Finals twice”… “He was a legend”… “I just keep wondering what their last words were…” “I feel so bad for all the families…”

I explained the elements of poetry and the practice of interpretation using the A.E. Housman poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.” My students were attentive and polite, but somewhat distracted. I had opened the lesson talking about Kobe, and they kept coming back to him.

What I realized today is that Kobe is, for these students, their John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations, their Challenger space shuttle, their 9-11. They weren’t even born to be able to answer the “where were you then?” questions about those events. But they know where they were on Sunday, January 26th.

And they know that nine people died, including three girls their own age. They know it feels like a nightmare, and they don’t know what to do with those feelings.

You see…for years my students have been balling up wads of paper and sending them soaring to the waste basket while shouting, “KOBE!” They don’t know about scandalous allegations that made the news. They only know that Kobe Bryant was a larger-than-life superstar, one of the greatest athletes in their lifetimes.

And today, after determining the rhyme scheme of a poem, after interpreting “Today, the road all runners come/Shoulder-high we bring you home/And set you at your threshold down/Townsman of a stiller town,” 71 fifth graders watched Kobe Bryant’s short animated film “Dear Basketball”….and wept.

And the teacher cried, too, watching adolescent boys jockey for position around the tissue box. And I won’t forget the moment, as they left for recess, when they balled up wads of paper, heaved them toward the trash can, and yelled out (this time with an added sentiment)…

FOR Kobe.”

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