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Rita Ott Ramstad M.A.T. ‘98: The Poet-Teacher

August 11, 2006

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Leaning over the bathtub as her twin toddlers cuddled and splashed, Rita Ott Ramstad had a flash of clarity. 

“The depth of their closeness astounded me,” she says. “It may be wishful thinking, but I hope they maintain that intimacy and accompany each other through all that life brings them.”

Ramstad channeled her emotions into “A Wish for My Children,” the last poem in her autobiographical collection The Play of Light and Dark, for which she won the 2003 Oregon Book Award.

“The book as a whole examines coming to terms with loss–of people, of dreams, of things not working out the way you want them to,” says Ramstad, who wrote the collection over 10 years. After struggling with infertility and the premature birth of her twins, Will and Grace (definitely not named after the popular TV characters), Ramstad realized that habitual apprehension and fear of loss were beginning to inhibit her capacity for love. Slowly and consciously, she chose to embrace life and optimism.

Thrilled and honored at the recognition heaped on her book, Ramstad embarked on a regional authors’ tour of public libraries and independent bookstores throughout Oregon. Simultaneously, her poem “Night Beach” traveled on Portland’s TriMet buses and MAX trains as part of Poetry in Motion, a campaign that showcases the work of local and national poets on transit vehicles.

Ramstad has been hooked on words since she won a national scholastic writing award in ninth grade. Now she shares that passion with students at the Center for Advanced Learning, a charter school started and operated by the Centennial, Corbett, Gresham-Barlow, and Reynolds school districts. The schools pool their resources to offer advanced project- and technology-based programs in information technology, medical and health sciences, and engineering and advanced manufacturing.

“I try to establish a connection between English and student programs,” Ramstad says. She teaches etiquette in e-mail, blogging, Web publishing, and text messaging along with general business protocols. Technology students read 1984, Frankenstein, and Fail Safe. Health science students study One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Girl, Interrupted; and writings by Sylvia Plath. All are learning to memorize and recite poetry.

Inspired by her students, Ramstad is moving away from autobiographical art and has started writing poems from the point of view of stereotypical students–the class clown, the brainiac, the jock. She hopes her new collection will encourage readers to examine the masks that people wear and the labels they assign to one another.

“The writer in me used to feel divided from the teacher in me,” she says. “Now, I feel more integrated.”

–by Pattie Pace

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