These are both memory-poems which emerge from my early days as a middle school teacher, a career I landed in because I wanted to avoid military service and once that threat passed didn’t know what else to do with myself. I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory those days, as these poems reveal. I learned a lot, however, which isn’t exactly the purpose of public education, nor was it what they paid me for. I’d like to think I’ve given back in other ways since. See alanwalowitz.com for more.
In Favor of Forgetting
(Jamaica, NY, 1973)
If ever I mistook myself for a teacher,
there was Cassandra
in the middle row, first seat
and smack in front of my face
to remind me otherwise.
Even after a year separating subjects from verbs,
counting syllables in words she couldn’t pronounce,
and this white-boy-come-to-the-ghetto
reading from Famous Myths and Legends
he was sure would save her
from the world falling apart before our eyes--
the sacking of Troy, false promises from the gods,
a life that would be less, no matter how she wailed.
She’d call me Mr. Thing, claimed
she couldn’t remember my name.
But what if it turns out
refusing to remember
is the very thing you need
to get you through this life?
first appeared in The A3 Review
Guys like us
(Jamaica, NY 1973)
I wasn’t exactly Teacher of the Year,
but classes were small and that limited the damage.
A lot of kids never came to school
except for lunch some days and always the last of the month
when free bus passes were handed out--
then there was Title One, LBJ’s bonanza
which would have made things more right--
except for guys like us. No matter.
Our failures would lead to full employment in some jungle
where too many of these kids were headed--
so guys like us agreed to hunker down behind a desk
from 8 to 3 in this godforsaken neighborhood
to avoid a free tour ourselves and a tent in some rice field
by sending someone else’s kid in our place.
Still, some of us made sad jokes about our petty classroom trials:
At least in Nam they give you a gun,
we told each other at a bar after school,
or smoking weed way too far into a night
that would become dawn and a day
we’d slog through in shades as if the hallways were the jungle,
our heads pounding, and handed out word searches, crosswords, and rebuses--
whatever it would take for guys like us to make it through.
It felt faraway this damage I inflicted.
till the morning Clifford Glover, age 10, was shot by a cop
when walking with his pop to work
through an empty lot just a mile away--
and then I knew the game was up.
George Mackie, that kid didn't know to get out of the rain,
and used to say he preferred to sit under the flag
so he could do his work “under justice,”
looked at me different from then on
and didn’t want to hang around my room during lunch
and, whether true or not,
I swear I saw him eyeing me each afternoon
as the cops escorted us to our cars which would take us home,
to a neighborhood safe for guys like us.
None of this makes me proud
but like the doctor I’d never grow up to be
I lived by the rule: First, do no harm
and I figured none of what I did or didn’t would amount to much
especially compared to what living was bound to do.
first appeared in The New Verse News
© 2018 Alan Walowitz
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