“Mother to Son”
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turni’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you find it kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now.
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Copyright 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and renewed 1954 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted from
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
This poem was brought to our writing seminar by another of the fellows. Nicole Pearson, a seventh grader at BRAMS performed it beautifully for our “Theater Night” this past June. It’s by Langston Hughes, a very important black poet who lived from 1906 to 1967. The relationship of mother to child is one I feel my students can identify with easily. The poem touches on parenting, separation, and goals for life. All of these are issues I like to discuss with my students. Even though the speaker is the mother you can get a strong sense of her son by the way she expresses herself to him.
In our first hour with this poem I’ll begin by having the students read the poem to themselves and then asking for a volunteer to read it aloud to the group. We will discuss what the poem is about. I will ask the students to think about what the poet has told us about the mother. What does she want? In acting terms we speak of the character’s “main objective”. Our first activity will explore working with objectives and the “who”: who they are.
The students work in pairs. As each pair volunteers to take a turn performing for the group I will tell each student, by whispering in their ear, how they are related (brothers) and what they want from their scene partner (to borrow $5, to get a ride downtown). They will improvise a scene in which they each go after their objectives. The students watching will try to figure out what the relationship is and what the objectives were.
The next time we meet we will reread the poem. This time the focus of the hour is exploring “how” a character goes after their objective. How does this mother make a case for what she wants from her child?
A game I like to use involves working with descriptive words written on small pieces of paper and stuffed into a paper bag. Students sit in a circle. A student pulls out a piece of paper and reads the word to the group. The word might be angry, happy, sassy etc. Starting with one word from the poem, each student would take a turn saying the word in the manner described by the piece of paper. Next, students use a whole line from the poem following the same procedure described above. In the third step, each student reaches into the bag, reads the descriptive word silently, and then uses it to say a line of the poem. The other students guess what the student’s “secret” word was.
Another class hour would explore the “where”: where does the scene in this poem take place? What time of day might it be? None of the answers to these questions are explicit in the poem; the students’ responses will be varied because they will emerge from their imaginations. Here is an opportunity to show that there are no “right” answers to creative questions.
An exercise that explores this experience of the “where” through the senses is one in which students begin moving around the room. I call out, “it’s snowing and the snow is slippery, ... now we are in the desert and it’s very hot.” Encourage your students to make their movement reflect each new piece of information. “Now we are on our own street walking to the store, it’s August and it’s a white sky day. . . .we are in the hallway of a tenement and it doesn’t smell good, people are yelling at each other behind the closed door of an apartment”. At this point students may come up with their own suggestions for this activity.
A fourth class hour focuses on physical action. Examining the poem again we will look for answers to “what” the characters might be doing during this scene. Again the answers are not explicit and the students need to use their imaginations to respond to this question. People are always up to something, they are rarely sitting still.
We can use a transformation game. Students are seated in a circle. A plastic bag is passed from one student to the next. Each student uses the bag differently than anyone who has taken a turn before. The others try to interpret what the student with the bag has in mind.
You can reuse the bag of descriptive words with this game so that the “how” is combined with the “what”. Physical action in drama helps illuminate the motivation and emotional state of the character. If the character is upset it will be apparent in the way in which they handle any object.
After exploring these elements of drama individually we are ready to make the activity more complex and to use this poem as a beginning point for improvisation. What has happened just before this scene, last week, last year? I don’t think that the child in the poem has to be male; urge girls to identify with the child/mother relationship in this poem.
Another improvisation might involve other members of this family. This mother and child have a special relationship, is this child the oldest? What is unique about being the oldest in a family?
Improvise another conversation between these two people, one that might take place tomorrow or next year.
As a writing exercise we might decide that the child in the poem is ten. Have students write a poem as if it’s four years later. As writers, the children talk about their relationship with their mothers now, remembering this conversation. What do parents want for their children? What do children want to achieve for their parents? What do they want to achieve for themselves?
This poem would be an appropriate one to kick off a unit on the play
Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry or
by the Puerto Rican playwright, René Marques. A major theme in both of these plays is Mother/Son relationships. The exploration of this poem can introduce students to the major theme found in the plays; the quest for happiness and security. The reading of the play will be enriched because the students have already personalized the theme.
You can use this poem to explore other cultures. Both plays take place at a previous time and in a different setting than the city of New Haven yet the circumstances of the poem could be interpreted as present day New Haven, and the son could be the age of our students. After working to understand the poem it will be easier for the students to transfer their identification with “the son” in the poem to “the sons” in these two plays even though the ages and nationalities are different than their own.
YALE-NEW HAVEN TEACHERS INSTITUTE
FINAL SEMINAR SESSION
LESSON PLAN—WORKING WITH POETRY THROUGH DRAMA (10 ADULTS)
MATERIALS: copies of the poem,
Mother to Son
by Langston Hughes
TIME: 20 minutes.
PLACE: Classroom, Yale’s Graduate Center.
OBJECTIVE: To express and present the themes found in the poem NON-VERBALLY.
STRATEGIES: Choosing a poem that this group had already discussed.
DIRECTIONS FOR THE ACTIVITY
1. Divide into two groups.
2. Each group has the same objective.
3. Each member must be an active participant.
4. Options for non-verbal expression:
a. movement; pantomime or abstract movement.
b. visual; human tableau, visual aids, or silent movie.
c. sound; singing or sound effects.
Each group worked with some input from me for 10 minutes. When the groups presented their work, each one used the one male in the group as “the boy”. Each group used the other members to portray what the mother wanted, thus discovering a key element of drama, THE CHARACTER’S MAIN OBJECTIVE.
Group 2 used pantomime and movement. Each of the three women portrayed a different “how” of the mother. Group 1 created a still tableau, the son was defined representationally and the other three women chose abstract images. Discussion followed each presentation. Group 2 felt the still tableau had a more powerful effect. They took a second turn and distilled their original idea into a tableau.