SCHOOL AND TEACHERS
Schools are an important or an unimportant part of growing up. Either way, they have left many memories to make poems from.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF CHILDREN
(I remember having seen somewhere a geography text which began thus:
"What is the world? It is a cardboard globe." Such precisely is the
geography of children.)
Geography is the room at the top of the stairs
where Mr. Haugh reigns, waving a yardstick--
first stop on the rise to seventh grade.
He sizes us up with bulging eyes, rattles
his keychain. Already he knows, and so do we,
who'll make trouble, which girls he'll tease,
which boy will taste his simmering rage.
Flexing his gauge, he begins the long slog
over a cardboard sea, holding up for us
strange creatures who eat dogs or scar
themselves or stalk their prey with poisoned darts.
Meanwhile, Carl Rudy perfects the art
of rolling his eyes back in his head like Caesar.
Carolyn Adams and Susie Breidenthal
agree they won't walk to school with me anymore.
"This is the Amazon," says Mr. Haugh.
We chew paper, toy with the rubber bands
on our new braces till they pop or fly off
like tropical bees. He crosses the equator
and stalks north along the seventy-eighth
meridian. We study each other's necks and knees,
the clock, the cracks, the scratches on our desks
which truly, truly show us the way.
Write a poem about sitting in a class in school. The teacher is talking, about geography or some other subject. Tell what the kids are doing, what is going on inside their heads. Try to make the subject the teacher is talking about and the things the kids are thinking about similar, though, of course, they are very different because the world of teachers and the world of children are very different. Try to make clear that, for the children, their way of seeing the world is much more important than the teacher's way of seeing it. Do this without explaining anything. Just tell what happens and what goes on inside the kids' heads.
Does the way Jane Flanders divided her stanzas make sense to you?
M. DEGAS TEACHES ART & SCIENCE AT DURFEE INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL Detroit, 1942
He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward, and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks,
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty-one,
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
We all knew a Gertrude Bimmler who always "raised her hand before she spoke" and who "could not be incorrect." And we have all known those long minutes when we studied the marks on the tops of our desks or watched the minute hand of the clock move notch by slow notch. Make a poem about one of those times.
ST. PETER CLAVER
Every town with black Catholics has a St. Peter Claver's.
My first was nursery school.
Miss Maturin made us fold our towels in a regulation square
and nap on army cots.
No mother questioned; no child sassed.
In blue pleated skirts, pants, and white shirts,
we stood in line to use the open toilets
and conserved light by walking in darkness.
Unsmiling, mostly light-skinned, we were the children of the
middle class, preparing to take our parents' places in a
world that would demand we fold our hands and wait.
They said it was good for us, the bowl of soup, its pasty
I learned to swallow and distrust my senses.
On holy cards St. Peter's face is olive-toned, his hair kinky;
I thought he was one of us who pass between the rich and poor, the
light and dark.
Now I read he was "a Spanish Jesuit priest who labored for the
salvation of the African Negroes and the abolition of the slave
I was tricked again, robbed of my patron,
and left with a debt to another white man.
The one-room school
sitting for its photograph
could have been my students
and the faces
are not happy June ones—
one girl worried
about her dark dress
amidst the light frilly ones,
two boys uncomfortable in jackets,
the rest scolded solemn
as if the teacher were taking
I know that the lad on the left
who climbed the schoolyard pine
and threw down the hawk’s eggs,
bombing the future,
died later by drowning,
dumped from his canoe.
I wonder if the girl in the middle,
blessed with alcoholic parents,
now buys overshoes compulsively
so her child will never wear
plastic sandals in January.
And I still see the ones
who brought garter snakes,
carried water for the drinking urn
and pounded blackboard erasers
bending over me
after the baseball knocked me down
at recess and asking if I’m okay.
I am, and long
to ask them the same.
Remember back to things that happened in one of your classes in elementary school. Write a poem from the point of view of the teacher who is now looking back at it
Teachers come in many shapes, temperaments, and qualities. Some--not so good.
ZIMMER'S HEAD THUDDING AGAINST THE BLACKBOARD
At the blackboard I had missed
Five number problems in a row,
And was about to foul a sixth,
When the old, exasperated nun
Began to pound my head against
My six mistakes. When I cried,
She threw me back into my seat,
Where I hid my head and swore
That very day I'd be a poet,
And curse her yellow teeth with this.
Zimmer often puts his name in the titles of his poems, like this one or "Zimmer in Grade School' or "The Day Zimmer Lost Religion" ( later in this anthology). Write a poem with your name in the title.
Or, write a curse on some adult who abused you as a child. It doesn't have to be a teacher, but since you have had eight or twelve or more since kindergarten, chances are it could be.
Get even with a teacher, either with a curse like Paul Zimmer or with satire. Satire doesn't editorialize; it doesn't push its opinion on the reader. That is why it is successful: instead of telling the reader what to think, it describes people so well that they give themselves away. The reader sees through them and adopts an opinion of them similar to the satirist's.
Train yourself not to make editorial statements about your subject. Instead describe well enough that the reader will have the feelings you intend.
In our little town of soot and sulfur
the Maestro was known as a gentleman
of the old school, soft-spoken, refined.
Even my mother approved, handing him
on Saturday afternoons, the money
she scrimped, that I might profit as much
in manners as in music, blatting
my horrible cornet cadenzas
into the parlor’s fractured air.
How patiently he listened, what pains
he took, urging my labors toward song!
What he loved, above all, was Mozart
and the soaring voices of bel canto.
I wanted only to be Harry James,
my famous embouchure lifting
the first fat notes of “Sleepy Lagoon
into the ballrooms ad balconies of heaven.
It all came tumbling down the night
the sheriff’s spotlight found the Maestro
lurking in bushes by a bedroom window—
thus ending, so it seemed, a rash
of unsolved neighborhood complaints.
Little survived his shame: lessons,
his standing in the town, the strains
of Mozart drifting from his house—
gone, and then he was gone.
It would be years before I, too,
could leave that dying town to find
my way in the world. Yet even now
I think of him and recall those hours
on Saturday afternoons when he sat
beside me and sang into my ear
measures I could not hear for myself,
and from this distance now, in praise,
I purse my lips, as he taught me, and blow
a silent triple-tongue staccato,
into an imaginary silver mouthpiece
of a horn once held by Harry James,
filling the sunlit rooms of Memory
with the pure, incorruptible dream of music.
Sometimes the teachers who have laid the warmest, firmest hand on our minds and hearts were not in schools. And we may not have been able to understand their lessons at the time. Make a poem of one of those times.
As children there are people who are seen much differently in our eyes, and ears, than they are in the view of adults. A poem about such a person?
AND WHEN I DREAM DREAMS
when I dream dreams,
I dream of YOU,
Rhodes Jr. School
and the lockers of our minds
that were always jammed stuck
or that always hung open
and would never close,
no matter how hard You tried.
we messed up the looks of the place
and wouldn't be neat and organized
and look like we were sposed to look
and lock like we were sposed
yea that's right
I dream of you
and from both sides of the desk
my dreams take place
in your two-way halls,
HallGuards from among us,
human traffic markers, bumps on the road
between the lanes,
to say, when we were sposed to say,
where to turn left, where right.
and how to get where you were going--
("You'll never get to high school
speakin' Spanish," I was told)
[nice of them, they thought, to not report me,
breakin' state law, school law, speakin' dirty
and our tongues couldn't lump it
and do what they were sposed to do.
So instead I reminded others
to button buttons
and tuck shirttails in.]
I never graduated to a
who knew how they were picked.
We thought it had something
with the FBI
or maybe the Principal's office.
So we got frisked,
Boys in one line,
Girls in another,
twice every day
entering lunch and leaving
Check - no knives on the boys.
Check - no dangerous weapons on the girls
or teased hair.)
So we wandered the halls
cool chuca style
"no se sale"
other junior highs were never frisked
what the teachers said in the teachers lounge
never knowing we were (sposed to be)
the toughest junior high in town.
And the lockers of our minds
are now assigned to other minds,
carry other books,
follow other rules,
silence other tongues,
go to other schools--
Schools of Viet Nam
Schools of cheap cafe,
Schools of dropout droppings, prison pains, and cop car's
Marcelino thought the only way
to finance college
was the Air Force
(GI Bill and good pay!)
War looked easy (compared to here)
Took his chances on a college education,
Took his pay on a shot-down helicopter
in a brown-skinned 'Nam,
with a pledge of allegiance in his mind
he had memorized through Spanish-speaking teeth
as a Hall Guard. "clean-cut",
Now cut clean down in a hospital ward,
paralyzed below the lips,
that still speak Spanish
Silvia thought no one had the right
to tell her what to do.
One year out of junior high, she bitterly bore
her second pregnancy,
stabbed forks onto cafe tables
and slushed coffee through the crowds
sixteen hours a day, and she was fifteen
and still fighting to say
"I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE ME!"
Esperanza with a needle in her heart, sucking will, wanting
junkies to say
"Hey, you're really okay."
And Lalo with a mind that could write in his sleep
growing epics from eyes that could dream
now writes only the same story over and over
until the day
that it's all
as he's frisked and he's frisked and he's frisked
and they keep finding
and even when he's out
his mind is always in
Like Lupe's mind
that peels potatoes
and chops repollo
and wishes its boredom was less
than the ants in the hill
and never learned to read because
the words were in English
was in Spanish.
I wonder what we would do
Rhodes Junior School,
if we had all those
emblems of you
stamped on our lives with a big Red "R"
like the letter sweaters
we could never
I keep my honorary
junior school diploma
right next to the B.A., M.A.,
etcetera to a Ph. D.
because it means
and when I dream dreams,
--how I wish my dreams
had graduated too.
Write a poem about being misunderstood by others or stereotyped because of a group you belong to, like an ethnic group, a certain neighborhood, or just being young, Or about the impact that others’ expectations have had on your life.