Poet In The Schools
“I’m the poet from the Writers In The Schools program. Can you tell me what room I’m supposed to be in?” I ask a black woman with a short platinum-blonde afro behind a desk.
“Let me look that up. How’d you get so dirty, girl? And you’re late.”
“There was a fire in the subway,” I say.
“Yeah, I heard that before.”
“And I’m late because your guard had to feel me up, and check out my purse.”
“Well, you look like a terrorist,” she explains. “We can’t have anyone with possibly a gun or a knife coming into our school. You’re in room 504, fifth floor.”
“Is there an elevator?” I ask. For the first time she smiles.
“I need to see the poems you’re going to be showing them,” she says.
“You’re kidding,” I say. “Why?”
She doesn’t smile when she explains that she has to make sure I’m complying with their new standards—no denigrating God, no irony, so satire, no N-word, no bad words in general, and no anger.
“Look, I’m very late,” I say. “Of course, I’d never include that stuff in the work I bring to school kids,” I lie. Everything I’ve brought has every one of those now-prohibited elements—must have in order to reach them.
She looks at me through squinting eyes and waits. I drag out one poem about someone’s bad day, to let the students know that poets have bad days too, and that poets’ lives can be mundane and that poets’ lives can be like their lives, and that, therefore, they too can be poets. She takes a large black felt pen and crosses out words. I’m so shocked I just stand there speechless. I’d assumed we were all together in this old school in the depths of Brooklyn, hoping to reach and educate the kids. “I don’t make the rules,” she says.
“Well, if Hitler made the rules, would you follow those?” I ask.
“Don’t be smart,” she says. “Is that the only poem you’re presenting? They couldn’t deal with more than one anyway.” She waves me out.
I’m in front of room 504, panting from the ten flights of stairs I’ve walked up—two per floor. My head pounds, echoing the heartbeat I feel throughout my body. The door is closed, which gives me a chance to pull myself together. I breathe in and out slowly, till my heartbeat feels almost normal, then I push open the beige door with its number pasted on with Scotch tape. I think of a poem’s lines: “I tried to get inside her / I shoved, she pulled. We / couldn’t make it happen.” I am surprised by the silence in the room. Usually, when a class waits, you can hear a quiet scuffling, if not a general chatter. This time there are no voices—perhaps an aide has been assigned? I push the door all the way till I’m in a large beige room, with exposed pipes, dripping, flaking plaster, and black iron gates over two large windows. There are old-fashioned tiny wooden desks in rows that seem much too small for kids who are thirteen or fourteen years old, some maybe older. At first the room appears empty, but I can see, near the back, near the blackboard and some broken coat hooks, two large boys watching what seems to be a fight or scuffle on the filthy linoleum floor. Moving closer I see a gang of about four kids watching two more. “They’re fucking,” one of the observers, in glasses, tells me. The two on the floor are almost fully dressed, except that their pants are down around their knees—in the case of the skinny guy under the fat girl, actually his jeans.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m Ms. Schor, the visiting poet.” I go up to the blackboard to write my name. I know by now to bring my own chalk. I am hoping I won’t have to yell at them or act authoritatively. I don’t do that well, and trying might ruin the class. These kids have enough authority. I’d like to reach them a different way. Usually I can depend on this kind of class being seen as a treat, and looked forward to with some curiosity.
The chalk squeals, and then there are two or three sharp explosions, causing all the kids to duck under the tiny seats.
“Sounds like gunshots,” says the skinny guy who’d been on the floor before, his jeans now on, though they are so loose they reach only to his lower hips, hanging on only to a pelvic ledge he barely seems to possess. At least four inches of his green boxers stick out. They all get up. They seem used to these sorts of interruptions.
I look around, surprised that this is such a small class. I’d expected an oversized class of thirty or forty students. But this is a small group of no more than seven, some look like adults, and two seem to be pregnant.
As if to explain, the girl with the glasses says, “We had a choice between a sex education class and your poetry class. So almost everyone went to the sex class.”
“It’s not a sex ed. class,” says one of the pregnant girls, “it’s a sex abstemious class now. Which is too late for me.” She laughs and pats her belly.
I feel betrayed that the school, which was on the request list for a Poet, would do that to me.
“Most of these kids is from the Resource Room,” says the one with the green shorts. “You know—the dummies and the idiots,” he says.
“The cretins and the retards,” adds someone else.
“Creteens,” someone else corrects.
“We jest got learning disabilities. We jest as smart as you all.” One of them stands on a desk, rubbing his crotch. Another, seemingly in response, makes a jerking off motion.
“Let’s all sit down,” I say. I prefer a room with chairs we can move into a circle. Most of these kids seem much too large for the seats, and I don’t want to sit up front at the huge brown desk. I want to create some intimacy.
I gaze out the large windows and see levels of dingy roofs, small houses below, and two huge chimneys in the distance, belching large clouds of grey smoke into the clear blue sky.
“Have any of you ever written a poem?” I ask. Most of the kids are still standing. Two are fighting. “Have any of you ever read a poem?” I ask. “Let’s sit in a small circle on the floor.” I sit down on the dingy floor, my bag of books beside me. A few of the more trusting souls sit down too. “Let’s talk about words,” I say.
The pregnant girl asks, “Why don’t Iraqis hang out in bars?”
“Why?” asks someone else.
“Because they can get bombed at home.”
They are watching me closely now, perhaps to see how I’ll react to the joke, or to the words “cretin” and “retard.” The two smaller kids in the back even stop throwing their paper airplanes and M&Ms. They’ve all heard worse words.
“What is worser,” a very large boy wearing a stocking on his hair asks, “creetin, or getting beat with a stick?” He may be testing me to see whether my concerns are in the right place. Sometimes we worry about certain words, but do nothing about the way we act.
“You can use any word you want here, while I’m here,” I say, as if I’m giving them a gift. “Words can be powerful,” I add, wondering whether that’s really true.
“My teacher calls me an ape,” says the large boy.
“She need to go to sex ed. class,” says one of the small ones in the rear, pointing to one of the pregnant girls, who has long black curls, and who is so skinny she looks like a snake who ate a gopher.
“I do not. It’s too late for me to learn sex ed., so I’m going to learn some poetry. They just tell you in sex ed. that you shouldn’t do nothing. That the boy will tell you he love you and that you so gorgeous he have no control and so could you please help him out and save him from the great love that threaten to give him blue balls, more painful than appendicitis.”
This might be today’s topic, I think. I’m interrupted by the sound of loud static, like a motorcycle in first gear. I look up, but it seems to be a false alarm. “You can use,” I say, “all the words, bad and good, that you want in your poetry instead of using them to hurt each other.” I could use a poem about a bad day that’s very funny. But may be too long to begin with. I decide to use a short, sort of matter-of-fact poem by Hal Sirowitz that is funny, but simple enough that they won’t feel intimidated.
“Here’s a poem called ‘My Friend Thad,’ by Hal Sirowitz,” I say. Most of the group are still laughing and throwing things, but some are moving up closer to me, sitting on those ancient desks with names and notes etched in them.
We both wore black.
But I wore that color
because my mother
said if you drip a slice
of pizza on dark colored
clothes, the stains won’t be
as noticeable. Thad wore
tight black leather pants
to send the message:
“Sleeping with me will be
an adventure.” Whereas,
the only message my baggy pants
conveyed was, “It’s time to do a wash.”
There is silence for what seems like at least five minutes. “That ain’t a poem,” says a tall white guy with kinky blonde hair and tiny eyes like poppy seeds.
“Yes it is, nigger,” says the other pregnant young woman, who I am happy to see taking part. She has at least ten earrings in each ear.
“I read that because I wanted to show you that there are many kinds of poems. That one may not seem like a poem because it’s very mundane. Does anyone know what ‘mundane’ means?”
“Don’t call me a nigger, you nigger,” says the white guy, pulling up his loose Hilfiger jeans with his elbows.
“You can’t call me a nigger, ’cause you white,” the pregnant teen with the earrings says.
“You call each other nigger, so why can’t I?” he asks.
“We’s allowed ’cause we ARE niggers,” she says.
I think about asking them what the word “nigger” means to each of them. I ask them to write a poem using the word “nigger” any way they want.
While some of them chew their pens and pencils and others chew the papers I’ve given them, some begin to write. A small girl I hadn’t noticed before, wearing overalls exactly the same color as her caramel-colored hair and skin, edges closer to me. As she thinks, she twirls her thin fingers in her curls, which seem carefully combed, and with her other hand absently strokes my jacket. From somewhere in the room is the rhythmic sound of someone kicking a desk. The loudspeaker startles, seems to say something, but I can’t make out what it is. For a moment there is some silence. I look out the window at the smokestacks in the distance, their smoke curling out like octopus ink.
The silence is nice, but unnerving. These kids are unpredictable—they could erupt in violence. And then what would I do? For instance, the kid peeling away pieces of his desk with a razor blade worries me. “Could you please put that blade away?” I ask calmly.
“What blade,” screams the loudspeaker. “Does someone have a weapon in there?
You keep order in there. It’s the Poet. Ha, ha.” It takes me a moment to realize that it’s a two-way loudspeaker, and someone is listening to us.
“Okay, who’s ready?” I ask. “Who wants to read?”
The young man who was on the floor at the beginning of class stands. He begins tentatively:
When I gets big I’se going to be bigger than you, papi, you nigger. And then,
Just wait. You will feel my fist, you will feel my belt,
You will feel the rocking chair over your head. I’ll know I’m done
When you dead.
“That’s fantastic,” I say. “In fact, wouldn’t the rhythm be better, and wouldn’t the poem be even more moving if you cut out the words, ‘you nigger’?” Before we can discuss the poem more, the thin pregnant girl stands up, her weight evenly balanced, seemingly straddling her belly. “I got one, Miss. A haiku.”
I’m going to eat you inside
Out and cut you up in ribbons
You motherfucking asslicking cunt.
“A haiku poem has seventeen syllables,” I say. “Can you rewrite it to have seventeen syllables? Where did you learn about haiku poetry?” I ask. I am going to talk about empathy, about point of view, about metaphor, about rhythm and meter. I take a deep breath for the first time. My eyes are drawn toward the window as it seems to be getting unaccountably dark, as if we’re in for a thunderstorm. The light in our room gleams dimly yellow. Beyond the smokestacks, spewing their thick pale smoke, the sky is still bright cerulean. But further on, as if echoing the smokestacks, are two enormous billows of darker, blackish smoke, moving higher and higher.
The loudspeaker clears its throat, and then, clearly, loudly says, “Stay where you are. No one is to leave your rooms. There’s been an accident at the World Trade Center. No one is to leave the premises. That means no one.”
The kids, large and small, run to the windows. “Shit. Fuck. Cunt. Motherfucker. Up yours,” they say in wonder. “Holy fuck. Motherfucker,” they say as we watch the columns of the World Trade Center fold in upon themselves, the skyscrapers and all that is in them transmuted into dust, the sidewalk regurgitating it all upward again into tornado-like clouds—building materials, papers, people, swirling back into the air.
Prizewinning author Lynda Schor has had four books of short fiction published, most recently, The Body Parts Shop (Fiction Collective Two) and, Seduction (Spuyten Duyvil Press). She taught fiction writing and creative non-fiction at The New School in New York City for twenty-six years. A new collection, Sexual Harassment Rules, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press, will be available soon. Schor currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, MX with her husband, the poet, Halvard Johnson.