Food for ThoughtAug/Sep 2013 Issue

Back to School: The Food Allergy as Teacher and Muse

Our columnist explores children's poetry as a place to tackle food allergies.

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On my way to Taylorsville, North Carolina, I speed along the steep curves of Route 127. I’ve made a hundred treks like this to rural schools and libraries—the life of a poet.

Writers often draw from the well of biography. But before age 24, I disowned my allergies as material. A college friend with whom I’d shared workshops marveled that he’d never known the snacks he brought to class could kill me. Meanwhile, I’d never known he had cystic fibrosis. Our conditions were not part of the story we chose to tell.

Yet as I prepared my master’s thesis, a first book of poems, the hard reality of managing allergies was on my mind. So I gave myself permission to draft the Allergy Girl series. In one poem, I recalled a hive-inducing kiss from a stranger. In another, I compared anaphylaxis to being on a plane as it crashes. My readers didn’t get grossed out or bored. They were curious. I wrote for a newspaper about discovering my allergy to mango while at a party. Eventually I wrote a memoir that doubled as a cultural history of food allergies. Instead of bookstores and bars, I found myself speaking at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

But today, my audience is made up of 5th-graders at Taylorsville Elementary. I tell them about my first poetry teacher, her flowing hair and spicy perfume. We listen for music in poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Edgar Allan Poe. We talk about writing from unconventional points of view and make a list of household objects that might “tell” their secrets: a variety of foods, a ball, a stove, a television.

I ask what poetry they’ve read: “Dr. Seuss?” A show of hands reveals most of them have sampled green eggs and ham.

I can’t stop myself. “I’ve never eaten eggs,” I say. “Or milk. Or shrimp, beef, pistachios.” I point to the white board’s list of foods. “I’ve never had pizza.” One girl’s jaw drops in shock.

“Do any of you have allergies?” I ask. A boy with blonde hair and rosy cheeks in the second row raises his hand.

“Peanuts,” he volunteers shyly. He brings his legs up, hunkering in his chair as he describes a reaction. “My eyes swelled and I couldn’t breathe.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say. I’m tempted to pull out my EpiPen to show him. I take a step toward my purse but then I pause. Maybe there’s another way to respond.

“What if you wrote in the voice of jelly?,” I ask. “What if jelly’s secret is that it’s…allergic to peanuts? What if jelly dreads anytime we make a sandwich, being all smushed up against the peanut butter like that? What if they’re enemies?”

His eyes light up. He nods, biting his lower lip.

“That would be an awesome poem,” I tell him. His classmates begin volunteering details, jealous. This is an even better idea than the “ball who is afraid of dog slobber” poem we’d brainstormed a few minutes ago.

When their teacher stands up to move them along, she announces they’ll all draft poems for National Poetry Month.

“I’ve got mine,” the little boy mouths. As they file out, he has a skip in his step, not despite allergies but because of them. Because that’s a unique story he has to tell.

What if, on occasion, we stop thinking about our medical conditions as flaws to be minimized? What if we accept them as a part of ourselves and let our voices—in poems, in paintings, in music—reflect how we experience the world a little differently?

Trust me. That’s a story people want to hear.

Sandra Beasley is the author of two collections of poetry and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown). She lives in Washington, DC.

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