FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Shortly after I start the graduate writing program at City College, someone tells me about Kenneth Koch’s book on teaching poetry writing to children and asks whether that is something I want to do. I say I’d be scared to death to get up in front of a group of children. “Children see through me, like cats; I can imagine myself teaching adults: I can fool dogs and adults.”
A few months later, Stuart—from my poetry workshop—asks if I’d like to make $200 for four afternoon’s work. Legally? Yes, doing poetry sessions with children in a writers-in-the school program. I imagine being in front of a class of hissing cats. But I can use the $200, and if I fail I can shrug and say, “It wasn’t my idea.”
I observe Stuart teaching—he is terrific, animated and spiritual. The kids adore him and the teachers respect him. Oh if that could be me! I ask Stuart how I can prepare, and he explains that in the writers-in-the-schools game the major league is Teachers & Writers Collaborative, they have lots of material, I should go to their office and browse.
I picture a bustling office with writers everywhere, heads buried in their notebooks while staffers field phone calls (“Yes sir, we can have two poets and one novelist out there in an hour”) and send the writers off on their assignments. But the office turns out to be a converted classroom in an elementary school in the West Village; the director, Steve Schrader, is alone when I get there. He makes me feel welcome and puts together a stack of books and magazines published by Teachers & Writers, and won’t take any money.
I read all the material, and soon names like Bill Zavatsky and Phillip Lopate are in my head alongside Mark Strand and Adrienne Rich. In one piece, Karen Hubert writes about first-day-of-school nervousness before starting a residency. I find this comforting as I ride the subway to the school deep in Brooklyn.
I emulate Stuart at my first class, and the kids seem to buy it. By my last class of the day I am me: reading aloud poems I love, hearing myself say things I didn’t know I knew, and—most amazingly—enjoying private conversations with kids as they are writing. One of my feared inadequacies was that I could never do that “voice” people use with children. But the kids seem to like it just fine that I talk normal to them.
I come home relieved, but wracked with doubts about how well I did and whether I have anything left to say. When I reappear a week later, the children applaud my entrance. I am hooked.
In my first full year of teaching I follow the advice of an actor friend: “Never say no to a job when you’re starting out.” Everything blooms at once. I am getting residencies from Teachers & Writers, Poets in the Schools, and Poets & Writers, while teaching as an adjunct at Bronx Community College. At each new school I have to prove myself. I have no backlog of assignments to pull out of the bag so I am constantly preparing while doing my own writing. My toughest session is on Saturday mornings at Bronx Community College, a remedial writing class that meets from 8 a.m. until noon.
One Friday, starting my fourth and last class of the day, I open my mouth and realize I don’t have enough left in me to go through with my plan. I am incapable of jumping around the room trying to excite the poetry out of the kids. In desperation, I ask them what’s important enough for them to write about. It turns out to be my best session of the week, opening up a whole new avenue of teaching. I leave elated but still exhausted, and Saturday in the Bronx looms.
At 7 a.m. I find myself climbing up the hill to the Bronx Community College campus. The stores are closed and the sky is grey with an early-winter bite. I feel fuzzy and can’t remember turning off the alarm. What if I am dreaming that I am on my way to school, but I am really in bed about to miss my class? If I shake myself real hard will I come awake in my bed? I make myself shudder and am still slogging up the hill, so I must operate under the assumption this is real.
By the time class starts, I am sure I am awake, if barely. I plunge into comma splices and subject-verb agreement without using those terms. As usual, Patterson comes in 30-minutes late; Patterson is an overnight conductor on the D-train and insists on going home and changing into a suit before coming to class—he’d rather be late than unkempt. Like many of my other students, he is well past college age, taking advantage of the City University’s open admissions policy.
During a break, I find Ignacio waiting for me in the hallway. Ignacio has three kids and a full-time job, and took remedial writing before but failed because a crisis at home forced him to miss the final classes. “Professor, I was here on time,” Ignacio says. (I have asked the students to call me Alan, but some insist on calling me professor—perhaps they have enough Alans in their lives and need a professor or two.) “Then I went to the john just to close my eyes for a few minutes, and I just woke up.”
“OK,” I say, gesturing toward the classroom. The exhaustion hits me again. I have to go to the bathroom, but I am afraid that if I sit down, I too will fall asleep. I head back into the room.
After class, three students wait for me in the hallway, but they are blocked by Iris, a nurse in her fifties. “Alan,” she says, “go home to your bed.”
THE RACE CARD
All the students at the elementary school are black. As I start a long-term residency, I worry about a racial confrontation, but after several months it still hasn’t happened. Until one afternoon, when I hear Thomas yell, “You stupid honky.” I meet his eyes, he is scowling.
I ask Thomas to accompany me into the hall.
“Thomas, how long have we known each other?”
“About three months, I guess.”
“Did you just discover that we are different colors?”
“What are you talking about, man?"
“You just called me a honky.”
Thomas looks at me quizzically, then replies, “I didn’t call you a honky, I called Shawn a honkey.” Shawn is lighter skinned than the rest. “I wouldn’t call you a honky.”
Thomas seems stumped by the obviousness of my question, and finally sputters out: “Because you are one!”
ANOTHER LAST DAY
It’s the final class of a six–day residency at an elementary school deep into Long Island. I have already said goodbye to two of my three classes. The children seemed preoccupied, unconcerned that they will probably never see me again. None of the emotion I have gotten used to. Perhaps I haven’t been all that important to them, or them to me. Maybe this is the day my work becomes a job.
I feel worn out from constantly being called on by kids obsessed with correct spelling, causing me to spend too much energy buzzing around the room, a high-paid spelling bee, instead of discussing matters of the soul. I tried to explain that I didn’t care so much about spelling, for now. Maybe they inferred that I didn’t care so much about them.
As I approach the last class, I will myself to make this a strong one. I prefer parting that is sweet sorrow to graceful goodbyes. I’d rather be wrenched from an embrace by the honk of an impatient bus driver than be pecked on the cheek as the bus is warming up.
I shut the classroom lights and ask the kids to visualize the opening poem as I read it to them. I talk to them about the poem, about what poetry means to me, and how much I’ve liked being with them. The inertia of the day is shifting. In the dusk, the children have eased into a calmness rare for fourth graders.
At the end of a successful writing session, I ask if there are any questions.
“You’re not coming back,” a girl says.
“That’s not a question.”
“Why aren’t you coming back?”
“Because if I did, I’d be disappointing the kids at the school where I’m supposed to go next.”
“What school? We’ll go there,” someone else says.
“You can’t, it’s too far away.”
“Then we’ll go and beat them up and take you back here.”
“You can’t beat them up, it’s a high school.”
“We’ll get our parents to beat them up.”
Every call for questions about poetry is answered with a variation on why do I have to leave and when will I come back.
“Maybe next year,” is the only answer I can give.
Shortly before three o’clock, as they are putting on their coats, someone writes “I love you Alan” on the board. A girl whose name I never learned grabs my briefcase and runs around the room, yelling, “He can’t leave without this.”
I sit down on the desk and say, “I’ll stay.”
“Children, the buses are waiting,” the teacher says.
The girl with my briefcase says she’ll make me a trade. “I’ll give up the briefcase and keep you.”
“How about if I take you with me?”
They decide that the whole class will come with me. One of the bus drivers honks. We have now played out this goodbye for as long as possible.
We go outside and I watch the kids board the buses. One by one, the buses pull away. I am left alone on the doorstep, waiting for my taxi.
In my small writer-in-residence cabin at Interlochen, I live as if I have several rooms, working wherever I wind up: curling up in corners, prone by the fireplace, perching by the window, or sometimes even at my desk. There are times when I am desperate for a paper clip—a modicum of organization is all I need, but I need it badly and instantaneously, and relocating to locate one is an onerous and potentially work-killing task. But the thing about paper clips is that you stop needing one about as quickly and often as you start to need one, so I tend to toss newly-detached paper clips willy-nilly. I make a cool discovery: Once the cabin is primed, whenever I need a paper clip all I have to do is feel along the floor or table without even taking my eyes off my work. Most first-time visitors will graciously stoop to pick one off the floor only to be rebuffed: “Please put that back where you found it.”
NOT SO SMART
“So, what brought you here?” the cab driver in Binghamton asks on the way to the airport.
“I gave a talk at the college.”
“You gotta be really smart to do that.”
“Not really,” I say, modestly.
He frowns. “I’m not smart enough to do that.”
Note: These pieces are from a work in progress: Based on a True Life: A Memoir in Pieces.