At first I connected with this poem because, from its opening stanza, it made me think of the elderly refugees I work with. My students are like preschoolers in some ways, learning new words and a new language, and discovering how to navigate in a big, mysterious, foreign world. We work on ABCS and 123s and simple vocabulary. The green grass. The blue sky. Moon. Fish. Eye. Nose. Mouth. My students like to teach me words from their native languages too. So, as usually happens, the teacher also finds herself the student.
You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever you like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.
My students have been through unimaginable trials in their lives. Not just in their homelands but here in America as well. Two recent instances come to mind. The son-in-law of one of my students from Africa was shot and killed in Louisville. Her daughter had been sexually harassed by a man in their apartment complex, and the son-in-law was in the process of trying to move his family to a safer location when he was shot in the parking lot. Another student was recently accosted just outside his home and forced to hand over five hundred dollars he’d just taken out of the bank--probably everything he had to live on for the month, or longer.
This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.
Maybe I’ve come back to this poem again because I find myself, like my students, in a time of transition and discovery. The poem, on one level, is about finding yourself, trying to distinguish between what you have been taught, from a young age, to be right and true and what you discover on your own to be right and true, and then, ultimately, what you choose to believe is right and true. I think of Anne Frank, who in the midst of one of the greatest atrocities of humankind, could write these words: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.
The poem’s ending reminds me that though we are given many people to help, guide, and nurture us in this life, we come into this world alone and we must leave this world alone. Every trial we encounter along the way, we must also confront and conquer ultimately alone. All we can truly know in this world, if we are brave and honest enough to rise to the task, is ourselves. And it is a relentless, harrowing, often heartbreaking task, taking that inner journey. But what I suspect and hope we’ll find at the end of that journey is a world much vaster, richer and more colorful than anything we’ve ever experienced in the world we think we know.
Listen to Margaret Atwood read 'You Begin,'