Why poems? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. I aim at the brain, not the heart.
Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel in ways that exposition cannot.
I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.
A Teacher’s Lament
By Kalli Dakos
Don’t tell me the cat ate your math sheet,
And your spelling words went down the drain,
And you couldn’t decipher your homework,
Because it was soaked in the rain.
Don’t tell me you slaved for hours
On the project that’s due today,
And you would have had it finished
If your snake hadn’t run away.
Don’t tell me you lost your eraser,
And your worksheets and pencils, too,
And your papers are stuck together
With a great big glob of glue.
I’m tired of all your excuses;
They are really a terrible bore.
Besides, I forgot my own work,
At home in my study drawer.
Mary Ruefle, 1996
The teacher asks a question.
You know the answer, you suspect
you are the only one in the classroom
who knows the answer, because the person
in question is yourself, and on that
you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.
You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.
You look out the window.
You don’t raise your hand and there is
some essential beauty in your fingers,
which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.
The teacher repeats the question.
Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers
and spring is in the air.
Poem for Christian, My Student
He reminds me of someone I used to know,
but who? Before class,
he comes to my office to shmooze,
a thousand thousand pointless interesting
speculations. Irrepressible boy,
his assignments are rarely completed,
or actually started. This week, instead
of research in the stacks, he’s performing
with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.
Kids danced to his music
and stripped, he tells me gleefully,
high spirit of the street festival.
He’s the singer, of course—
why ask if he studied an instrument?
On the brink of graduating with
an engineering degree (not, it turned out,
his forte), he switched to English,
his second language. It’s hard to swallow
the bravura of his academic escapes
or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.
Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon
he’d picked on campus; once, a poem
about an elderly friend in New Delhi
who left him volumes of Tagore
and memories of avuncular conversation.
My encouragement makes him skittish—
it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics
of despair. And I remember myself
shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,
the prospect of effort-drudgery.
Success—a threat. A future, we figure,
of revision—yet what can the future be
but revision and repair? Now, on the brink
again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant
thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.
“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak
it up and write my paper in a weekend,”
he announces in the Honors office.
And, “I want to be a bum in daytime
and a reggae star at night!”
What could I give him from my life
or art that matters, how share
the desperate slumber of my early years,
the flashes of inspiration and passion
in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool
myself or anyone, no one could touch
me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy
Houston Monday, he appears at my door,
so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him
now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.
“Write a poem about me!” he commands,
and so I do.
Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment
…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,
both working for the American Red Cross.
They returned to suburban Harrisburg
and began the next chapter of their lives.
Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.
Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,
which opened so you could hear recess voices,
and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.
We were seated, not in usual rows,
but in a square “u” of desks.
We were allowed to sit with whomever
we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted
by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).
Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.
She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.
She loved all of her students, but had,
I realized even then, a soft spot for me.
I didn’t understand why and still don’t.
Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,
she read aloud to us–from books
on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.
Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,
believing that eight-year-olds could understand more
than the 1950s psychology books expected.
This was her great gift to her fortunate students.
We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,
then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.
One day when I’d finished my work early,
she sent me to the library, alone, saying,
Get whatever book you want, Ann.
That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,
about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,
where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.
I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,
tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.
Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,
no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.
One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office
without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,
a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.
She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.
After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to
sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.
She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening
to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.
My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.
I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement
and began, in earnest, my professional life.
In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author