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You Owe Me

On teaching writing to children at a Houston cancer center. Featured in The Best American Essays 2012:

"The children I write with die, no matter how much I love them, no matter how creative they are, no matter how many poems they have written, or how much they want to live. They die of diseases with unpronounceable names, of rhabdomyosarcoma or pilocytic astrocytoma, of cancers rarely heard of in the world at large, of cancers that are often cured once, but then turn up again somewhere else: in their lungs, their stomachs, their sinuses, their bones, their brains. While undergoing their own treatments, my students watch one friend after another lose legs, cough up blood, and enter a hospital room they never come out of again.

"The M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where I have taught poetry and prose for nearly ten years, is a world-renowned research institution. I have met the sickest children in the world there—children who have been treated already, somewhere else, and who have come for one last experimental treatment, who have one last chance at survival. In this capacity, my students often take part in studies. The treatments they receive are often groundbreaking, innovative ones that, with time, are perfected and standardized. This means their experiences, whether their disease is successfully eradicated or not, serve to build treatment protocols that eventually cure children throughout the world. But only a small percentage of the students I work with in the center’s classrooms live. Less than half, maybe less than a third, and I think less than that: I am just one of the writers in residence there. The numbers aren’t available to me."
PUBLISHED: Nov. 25, 2012
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5637 words)