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Finding words to speak the unspoken

In one of her songs, singer Suzanne Vega refers to silence as "a secret burning thread" that cuts the throat. More often, it feels like a needle.

That's true for anyone who swallows sadness or unanswered questions instead of bringing them into the open, but especially so for children. (See story at right and on page 15.)

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A neighbor of mine vividly remembers an older cousin who fought in the Korean War. Most of his buddies died in combat, and when he returned home, no one in the family would discuss what happened. The youngest family members were afraid to even ask what "war" meant. The word became a "thread" for them all - unnecessarily, she now says.

Three years ago I met a middle-schooler who had a thread of his own. I was teaching a poetry workshop in Paterson, N.J., a very poor city where unemployment and despair are constant companions.

The kids were writing furiously about something they liked, except for this one boy. He had nothing to write about, he told me. There was nothing good in his life.

Finally, he decided that he enjoyed riding his bike, so I asked him to tell me about the wheels. "Where could you go if they were Ferris wheels instead of tires?" I asked. "Where could you go if they were two full moons?"

I was stunned when he said, "I could outrun the people who shot at my brother [on the street]."

The boy filled a whole page with his bike poem, a powerful, imaginative piece. He smiled for the first time when he finished.

That's often what happens when someone claims his voice. The flaming thread, after all, had burned up the paper, instead of the person.