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poetry Teaching

The Hill We Climb

This poem is the only one which has ever given me goosebumps and moved me to tears. I’m not usually a huge poetry lover. I’ve taught this poem since first noticing it after the inauguration, and I know it’s almost old news now, but the words and the message are still churning around my brain.

As part of the advanced English course in German high schools, students have to learn about the American Dream. As a British woman, I can never proclaim to fully understand the USA, but I have studied the Civil Rights movement at university as well as having been obsessed with US political podcasts for the past year. Listening to ‘reality TV show America’ was a welcome escapist break from the tediousness of repeated lockdowns.

My students have to learn the roots of the American dream, from the settlers of the 17th century to its ultimate success or failure. They learn its hypocrisies and paradoxes, that America is simultaneously hopeful, egalitarian, divided and prejudiced. The USA is not the classless society it claims to be, and Lord knows it had not always protected the interests of freedom and democracy worldwide. I would argue that you cannot truly call the US a democracy until after African Americans ‘won’ the vote during the 1960s. It’s also important to remember that voter intimidation continues to this day.

This poem beautifully sums up exactly what the American Dream means to many people in the 21st century, at least to those who do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ white middle-class heterosexual male citizen.

Amanda Gorman amazes me. The youngest ever Poet Laureate, and a Black woman. Her genius and composure are inspiring.

The US needs to focus on building bridges right now rather than burning them, Gorman justly points out. How can the US be an example to the world if it cannot keep itself together?

She reminds us that rights, once granted, are not immovable and permanent, but must be continually preserved and maintained. It is ultimately a hopeful poem, but one which does not brush over America’s violent racial and colonial past. The US is a product of its history and is perpetually unfinished. There is no point at which you will ever be able to step back and say, there, we did it, we all achieved the American Dream. Gorman’s message is not new: that ultimately there is more which unites America than divides it, but it is a message she delivers with a unique, calm passion. It’s a timely message, and I couldn’t have chosen a better poem to analyse with my students. We all need a ray of hope right now.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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