Tag Archives: COVID-19

#373: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet, II

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Last year on April 29 I wrote a poem with this same title, hence, the Roman numeral two punctuating its conclusion. Let this be the second part of a prose poem meditation on the penultimate day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in his potentially penultimate professional year, ending in a rhyming couplet.

I have had three penultimate teaching years in a row. The bottom line is this: I am not ready to retire. I’m a mess. This year, especially early on, I waffled all over the place.  Then, almost immediately, I stopped waffling. I knew I was not ready and made my peach with that. Did I just type the word peach? I have not been making peaches.

And yet, I knew, somehow (a meeting with a financial advisor?) that I was not ready. I knew, somehow (the repeated occurrences of joyfulness in the work?) that I was not ready. And I knew, finally, somehow (the passing of a deadline for declaring an intention to retire?) that I was not ready.

The deadline for declaring an intention to retire, by the wayside, was April 1, yes, April Fool’s day, but much more importantly, the first day of national poetry month, and the beginning of the third week of shelter-in-place orders as the result of COVID-19. I transitioned on that day from journaling the plague year to poetry-ing it.

Nearly all of my poems this month have been about, or at least mentioned, the coronavirus pandemic, sheltering-in-place, distance learning, social distancing, abandoned schoolhouses, grieving for the class of 2020, walking the dogs, and sitting in the back yard with birds.

Here’s the shortest commencement speech ever: Class of 2020. You’ve been robbed a little bit, but just a little. Sure, there are things you didn’t get to do that every class for the last 102 years has been able to do, but none of those classes, none of them, have chalked up their school’s courtyard while keeping a safe distance quite like you have–and these things that you’ve missed, ultimately, will be less important in time than the things you didn’t miss. So there. Godspeed. Congratulations. Your accomplishments are legend.

Two beloved colleagues, both long-time friends, one longer and more friendly, but both, it bears repeating, beloved, are leaving the school house. One is retiring and the other will be teaching internationally, and both, I know, are grieving that this last year in public education has been so fucked up. Another reason, as if I needed one, for staying.

It is time to retire the word penultimate. A thing cannot be second-to-last forever. I understand this now, and will endeavor to stop thinking ahead, just as my mindfulness practice tells me, that the most important moment is the NOW moment, the expansion of consciousness in the present–an awareness that poetry serves up better than any cushion. Ultimately, I will retire from the public school system . . .

before I’m toast but not until I’m ready,
and until that day I swear I’m holding steady.

 

 

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#367: For Its Own Sake

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Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.

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#366: Ghost School

I saw two human beings
in this building that, on a
typical school day, houses
thirteen-hundred. I saw
our head secretary, Dee, spending
her Wednesdays from eight
to noon on site, and the head
custodian, Dan, spending a couple
hours a day doing odd jobs
until the crew can come back
in May, he hears, to do a deep
clean. If there were only two
people to see, they’d be the two,
two sides of the same coin,
the life-blood of the building.
Only the second time
I’ve visited the school since the
shutdown, less forlorn now,
but only because of Dee and Dan.
On the first visit, weeks ago now,
I found this deflated happy birthday
balloon all by itself in the
abandoned cafeteria, what we
call The Commons. That balloon,
two or three weeks later, has
somehow left the building.
I don’t know why, but I was
hoping to find it again.
Why did I come back today?
I collected a few things that
belonged to my intern;
I picked up books of ancient
Chinese poetry; I gathered
the last of my LP records, the
ones that were important
to my collection (The Mountain
Goats, Death Cab for Cutie,
Destroyer, Grizzly Bear);
I grabbed my Shakespeare
action figure, my action figure
librarian, and my magnetic
James Joyce finger puppet;
I picked up a stuffed frog
I’ve used as a talking stick,
but decided against bringing
it home. None of this stuff
was essential, but I drew the line
today with the stuffed frog.
It must have taken me all
of about 10 minutes to gather
up these things, but I was there
much longer, just standing
around, looking at the student art
on the walls and the furniture,
the tables in their pods,
taking pictures of this or that,
listening for the voices of
the hundreds upon hundreds
of kids that have inhabited
this space, trying not to cry.
I recorded myself singing
in an empty hallway (one
of the best things to do in a
ghost school), and I filmed
myself coming and going,
as if I wanted to remember
what that was like. Ridiculous.
I’ll be back here. I will do this
again. I will make this journey
hundreds of times. Things will
return to normal one day.
No matter. The loss here is
palpable and real and echoes
through these hallowed halls.

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the abandoned balloon

pano of the commons

pano of deserted classroom, mine

as you walk in or out of the door of A9

 

some white board graffiti, a reference, perhaps, that I don’t understand

 

the talking stick stuffed frog

Photo on 4-22-20 at 1.38 PM #3

at home with a teacher’s toys

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#365: Staff Meeting in a Google Hangout

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Our principal postponed
the official and virtual staff meeting
until Thursday, expecting new
information about distance
learning to come in after our
regularly scheduled Tuesday
morning Hangout. He held the
Tuesday meeting open, though,
made it voluntary, invited us
to attend for mostly social reasons.
I’m guessing about 30 of us
showed up at that virtual meeting.
We talked about grocery shopping,
the best place, the best time,
gardening, home projects, children,
dogs, better lighting for video posts,
how to view everyone in a grid,
Jack’s mustache, my disco hoodie,
and the virtual cornhole competition.
My friend Drew said the other day,
or maybe he posted it, that he
held a little bit at arm’s length
the sentimentality with which we
sometimes view our teaching
community–until now. 30 of
us sat together this morning,
looking at tiny little moving pictures
of each other scattered across
a slightly less tiny computer screen,
and we talked about nothing,
we talked about everything,
and sometimes, we all sat there
for a moment or two in silence,
which is fine by me, just looking
at one another, smiling, laughing,
almost as if we were in the same
room at the same time.
This poem would like to avoid
a sloppy ending; I feel it, under
my fingers as I type this, resisting
that sentimental slide. But there’s really no
other way to say that I love the
people I work with, and while I’d
much rather see them up close,
this odd, awkward, cold way
of being with them is way better
than nothing, and I am grateful
for every minute of it.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #17

Most importantly, I will not be able to BE with my seniors in IB English, not even remotely. I won’t see their faces, hear their voices, read their writing, laugh at their good humor, be in awe of their intelligence and kindness. But additionally, I will not be able to formally finish the Hamlet unit with my seniors. I will not be able to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with them. I will not be able to read Death of a Salesman with my students. I will not be able to read Waiting for Godot with my students. I will not be able to ask them, what is your dream, what are you waiting for? I will not be able to explore with them the six tenants of existentialism: existence precedes essence, time is of the essence, humanism is at the center, freedom and responsibility are key, ethics are paramount, and integrity is all. I will not be able to share with them the names that many of them will have heard for the first time in their lives: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. I will not be able to share with them the poems that would prepare them for Paper I. I will not be able to share with them the random questions about drama that would prepare them for Paper 2. I will not be able to commiserate with them as they prepare for and then spend four hours taking these brutal IB written examinations, which, while brutal, are still so much fun and provide so much rigorous reward. And afterwards, they will not be able to tell me how they felt well-prepared for the task, how they felt confident about their work. Finally, I will not be able to see them make fools of themselves as I ask them for a final exam to write and perform a play of their two-year IB English experience. I will not be able to do these things with my seniors. And all through the staff meeting this morning on Google Hangouts, I was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully.

For today’s poem, (#9), inspired by the NaPoWriMo website, I offer up a concrete poem, which is not really a concrete poem, but a poem about concrete, and improvised into a voice memo, and revised only slightly, because, god damn it.

#353: Concrete Poem

Concrete,
seemingly solid,
cement,
deceptively hard,
rocky,
stupid and orange,
sometimes grey,
sometimes blacktop,
asphalt, potholed
like my driveway.
You play ball
on the concrete,
basketball
in the park
or in the
driveway,
foursquare
on the
playground.
If you fall,
little rocks
embed themselves
inside your knee-
skin.
This is a concrete poem,
but it doesn’t look
anything like what
it’s about.

And finally, yesterday, I wrote a poem that stole a first line from Emily Dickinson, but today, that poem still haunts me, so I read it here–because I believe it helps.

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #16

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We saw it coming. In fact, it’s not at all surprising. Nevertheless, I was surprised (!) to hear our governor’s announcement today that schools would remain closed until the end of the year. Distance Learning would be the modality that would take us through to the end. What I found most distressing in this news–and maybe this is just selfish of me–is that seniors, the class of 2020, so long as they were on track to graduate on March 13, will receive passing grades in their classes for the second semester. If I understand this correctly, it means that I am not expected to offer them any more learning opportunities. I am to teach no new concepts, I am to give and assess no new assignments. Essentially, we are done. Wait a minute, I say. We were not even finished with the unit! Can we not at least finish the flipping unit? I don’t have an answer to that question yet. I will ask it, but I predict that the answer will be no, you can’t even finish the flipping unit.

Meanwhile, it’s still national poetry month. I find myself looking through Emily Dickinson for a good first line to steal, as per the optional prompt today from NaPoWriMo. It wasn’t difficult to find the right one.

#352: A Poem Beginning with a Line from Dickinson

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
when I Learned I might never See
these young People again–
when I counted them in my head
and tried to Remember,
to record their little Lives–
what I knew of them–into
Long Term Memory, and I tried
to hear their Voices, too, as if we
were still in that Room together–
where we might be able to Say,
while looking into each other’s Eyes–
our Sadness, our Goodbyes.

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#349: Twenty Little Poetry Projects

I thought I would just share the instructions from the optional prompt today on the NaPoWriMo website, so folks could have some insight into the composition of today’s poem. I tried to write a line or lines inspired by each item of instruction in chronological order, rather than jumping around, in the hopes that the poem might be more cohesive or comprehensible. I think it fails on both counts. Not as easy as it looks. I chipped away at this damn thing all day and it’s pretty silly, but I gotta say–I like it. Here were the instructions:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of talk you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun) . . .”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he or she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a non-human object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

 

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

Sunshine, medicine I need.
Some honey bees out back just created the world.
Breeze against the skin, greenery abounds, the birds
trill and thrum, nose the fresh cut grass, and the toothpaste
from this morning’s brushing, lingering,
the taste of yellow, lime green moss on the roof
of the noisy wood shed mouth.
Old man Bill Wheeler, as our paths crossed
on Swain Avenue, said, lovely day for a pandemic.
His name wasn’t Bill Wheeler, and it might have
been Risley Avenue, but the rest, what he said, true.
Airline travel is down, as is air pollution.
Completely, utterly, snatched. As I have said,
the Sun also rises, falls, and as I have heard others say,
you can’t have your cake and eat it, as the prickly pear
of love fights off the doves of war and  the potus slam
dunks the ball for the win! Jarm Dawg says, they
don’t call me Jarm Dawg for nothing.
We will all return in glory, not to judge the living
and the dead, but to put the school house back together.
These old teenagers will once again populate and deck the halls.
This butter has marbles in it, comprenez-vous, n’est pas?
Back to the sun, remember, whispering its sweet, warm gibberish
into skin, green things, the birds, the grass, toothpaste that
starts to taste like whiskey.

Might as well record this one for shits and giggles. That’s not part of the poem, BTW. I wondered out loud and on the page whether or not I would record any of these original things, but this one, I think, might be fun to read out loud and I hope, might be fun to listen to. Enjoy.

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