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Shel Silverstein’s ‘Whatif’

I think that for anyone who writes, its therapeutic properties must have come to mind at some point. We’ve all been there, I’m sure, that moment when we finish writing something – whether it’s a letter, a diary entry, a chapter of a novel or a poem – when we experience what feels like a momentous release; something shifting inside us and feeling lighter. Not to overstate the point, but writing has helped me ever since I was very young: to come to terms with emotions, to understand myself better and my place in the world, to make sense of events that have troubled or perplexed me. It made far more sense to me than talking about things, because (whilst not always healthy), there was no judgement, no self-consciousness and no answering back. Just my thoughts, raw and unabridged on the page.

I started thinking about this recently whilst reading a poem entitled ‘Whatif’ by poet, illustrator and musician Shel Silverstein from one of my poetry for children collections, wondering how I could adapt it into a poetry workshop. Unless we are a zen-like superhuman, we all worry about things so we can all relate to this simple but important poem. Here it is:

I thought it would be interesting to try out this poem with the two different groups of children I work with: my Magic Pencil after school club (middle class Kenyans & ex-pats) and the school I volunteer in (Kenyan kids from low income families) and it really was fascinating to note the different responses. As an example, a number of children from the second group asked me what ‘divorced’ meant. These were 11 and 12 year old’s and it was the first time they’d heard the word which blew me away. It’s a huge taboo to divorce in Kenya and I guess it’s something people just don’t talk about much, particularly not in front of children. There was also great hilarity amongst this same group when we reached the line ‘Whatif I tear my pants?’ Pants in Kenya (as in England) mean underwear and they were in fits of embarrassed giggles as I explained that in the US pants are trousers.

After going through the poem a few times with both groups, ironing out any vocab issues and then chatting in small groups about the kinds of things that ‘worried’ them, they then had a go at writing their own Whatif poems. Such a beautifully simple activity, but a wonderful way for children to express their fears and anxieties in a supportive, accepting way. I wondered if they may feel uncomfortable discussing their worries with others they didn’t necessarily know very well, but this wan’t the case. It certainly helped that I firstly shared some of my own ‘Whatif’ worries with the groups, making it clear that it is absolutely normal to not feel strong all the time.

If you scroll down a little on this page of children’s writing, you can see a couple of great poems written in response to ‘Whatif’ by the second group of Kenyan kids. It was interesting to note that that the second group were worried about things like being hit and parents dying and the writing club children asked questions such as ‘Whatif Al Shabaab strikes again?’ and ‘Whatif our car crashes?’, all indicative of different exposure to news and life experiences.

I do hope that some of the children from these two groups felt lighter as a result of writing their fears. Even if it resonates with just one or two children, it’s worth it in my book.

Shel Silverstein 1930-1999

Thanks Shel for the great poem.

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