Poet in the Schools
The insurgency in Iraq is escalating, and I’m pretty pissed. Six more soldiers blown away and countless Iraqis murdered. I watch the news on and off, passing through our tiny living room where I also sleep, while I get ready to go to work, which includes dressing and feeding breakfast to my eleven-month-old daughter. I teach poetry in public schools. Sometimes I’m assigned to one school for a month, sometimes for three months. Sometimes only a one-day workshop. My assignment today is Ralph Ellison Junior High, in Brooklyn. This means a subway ride from my small tenement apartment in the Village, where I’ll leave my own daughter Lily with my neighbor Mimi, who has a baby of her own, and who’s on welfare, but baby-sits for extra money. And that’s also where I write, which is what I consider my real profession, even though by teaching poetry to troubled and poor kids I feel I’m doing something useful. Mimi lives across the hall from me in a mirror version of my apartment. It’s hard for me to say goodbye to Lily, who always fusses, sometimes screaming horribly, twisting and turning in Mimi’s hefty arms, pulling Mimi’s long, kinky, blonde hair, while I try to reason with her—I have to go, I need to work, I’ll be back, I love you. But of course I feel she’s right, I am deserting her—something about the fact that I need to leave her in order to care for her doesn’t compute on the most primal levels, and by the time I’m in our dusty brown hallway with Mimi’s door shut behind her, Lily’s wails not much diminished by the ancient patched-up and much-painted pine, I’m a complete wreck. I read in some book—You Don’t Have To Be a Co-dependent Parent—that it could be easy. I should be able to tell Lily I need to go and that I’ll be back (something she’ll get to see sooner or later), be calm and firm, and then leave her, no matter what her state, feeling fine. Today is an Orange Alert day so I keep looking out for unmanned backpacks or other unattended luggage in the shabby, urine-smelling subway tunnels and staircases, not taking it completely seriously, but somehow internalizing a low buzz of paranoia. As I get down all the stairs I glance once last time at the sky, which is bright blue. It’s a clear, crisp day, the kind we don’t have many of anymore. It’s gorgeous, I think, looking one last time before committing myself to the stale underground. I can still see Mimi, in her peach flannel robe, the belt tied under her overwrought abdomen, the robe’s edges still not meeting in spite of the belt. She’s holding Lily, smiling and saying, “Say bye to Mommy,” and Lily is reaching her arms out plaintively toward me, her soft black hair curling around her ears, her eyebrows thin, dark, darting birds. Mimi is a painter. I pay her a very small amount from my very small salary, so she earns even less than I do, but she gets to stay home with her son Cooper.
For my job as Poet in the Schools you have to be intrepid, as it is part of America’s short-lived experiment with getting the arts into the public elementary and high schools to bring underprivileged kids into the world of culture, to help them express themselves in ways more positive than blowing someone’s head off with a handgun. Mostly we’re going into nasty, rough neighborhoods and into tough schools. (By next year my job, and most of these arts programs will be de-funded.)
By the time we get to Court Street in Brooklyn, I can get a seat. Already I’m becoming uneasy as large, dark men in North Face jackets and open sneakers begin to surround me. I realize that in the trains and subways I am always edgy, even when things seem calm and there are few people around, mostly reading or sleeping, hanging on to bags and briefcases. A man with no legs propels himself through the aisles on a skateboard, singing. When he finishes his song, he says, “I’m not asking for your pity—just your money.” This seems to appeal to people, who smile and open their purses, dig into their pockets. As we’re due to come out of the tunnel, I hear an enormous boom, so resonant that my heart seems to have burst and I touch my chest to see if it’s intact. The train’s lights go out, leaving us all in total blackness and a sudden silence. Then I flinch at sparks and flashes in the tunnel like fireworks. While I’m looking at those, a huge cloud of dark smoke whooshes into the car and everyone is coughing, hacking, gagging and gasping. “Get down, get down easy,” the man on the skateboard says, “the air’s better down here.” “Must be an explosion somewhere,” gasps a woman practically lying over my legs, but still gripping her huge blue multi-strap handbag. “Maybe a bomb.” “Maybe an earthquake—the one New Yorkers have been promised within the next forty years.” “Maybe a terrorist,” I say, recalling the Orange Alert. A terrorist bombing is probably a good enough reason to stay home from work. Then I recall that I get paid per deum—no work, no pay. I also realize that I have no health plan so I have to get out of this train and the subway in good shape.
I recall that my job is a lifeline for many of my students, all of whom are getting a new experience, which might change one or two of them for life. “You’d think they’d announce what happened,” says a man holding a white hanky over some cuts on his cheekbone. “Loudspeakers don’t work when the electricity is out,” says the woman, lifting herself off of me. I smell an acrid odor that at first makes me gag, and then permeates my body till I feel like I’m made of metal or burnt plastic. Out of the smoke, a fireman with a lantern emerges who helps us all up with a huge gloved mitt. “Follow me,” he says. “I’m gonna lead you out.” “What happened?” asks a blonde woman who is holding up, like a cocktail glass, the sharp red heel that has come off her shoe. We follow the fireman and his lantern, the only light in the blackness, along the tracks, the closest one glowing like a long snake when the light of the lantern catches it. I can only see one person in front of me, and sometimes this bright snake of track. Smoke still sifts around us. The transit fireman finds a door in a wall, puts down his lamp and opens the door with a large key on a huge round keychain heavy with keys of all sizes. There is a long flight of stairs, and we march up them, seemingly forever, until the narrow stairway begins to get light. We soon find ourselves out on the street, our faces streaked with black soot, our clothes with white flakes. We all suck in the fresh winter air. “Was that a terrorist attack?” asks the woman still holding her heel, her blonde hair decorated with oddly shaped embers, and rakishly fallen on one side like a stylish fedora. “It was probably an electrical fire,” says the fireman, yellow coat flying, running off to collect more people.
I’m late, I realize, looking at the watch on my now-gray wrist. Then I look around. There are two pretty stores on each corner, lots of trees, and window boxes in some elegant brownstones, but the next block is already seedier, with smaller houses with fake wood or light-green metal siding, and striped metal awnings over windows as tiny as pig’s eyes. Lots of men and boys sitting around on old chairs in front of what look like garages and grassy lots. That’s how I know I’m going in the right direction. Soon some windows are boarded up, the concrete steps become broken wooden stairs, their paint fading, weeds growing high in the cracks between the sidewalks. A small, dark-haired child rides a tricycle without any adult supervision that I can see. The school is visible now, a huge Victorian building that was probably once elegant, looming darkly, in disrepair. There are still students milling around the entrance, so in spite of my subway disaster, I may not be so late after all. I begin to run, and hear a loud CRACK. Automatically I cover my head and crouch. CRACK, CRACK. Two of the students drop and the little kid falls off her bike. Blood spreads on her pink jacket. “Get an ambulance,” I scream. Women come running out wearing aprons and housecoats, screaming, crowding me away. “She’s been shot.” I don’t seem needed so I hurry on, thinking about Lili with Mimi, then rush to the school’s entrance, which has a separate doors for boys and for girls, from those years when the sexes weren’t allowed to mingle. As I approach, the school seems even more massive. It is built of stone, like some ancient British insane asylum, the kind you see in movies. Though boys and girls now can use the huge main entrance, the separate ones are being used once again so the kids can file slowly, in two lines, through the metal detectors. By the time all the students are inside, first period is nearly over. I throw my purse on the table and pass through the turnstile. “Go back out,” says the guard, whose uniform is blue with a yellow band from her right shoulder to her left waist. She’s also wearing a holster with a gun in it. “What?” I ask, raising my hands. “You rung the buzzer.” “Rang,” I say. She makes me stand there and runs a wand over every part of me. She makes me raise my arms and spread my legs, like at the airport, and then feels my breasts and laughs. The guard checking my purse says, “I have to hold this too.” He holds up my wallet. He looks at the poetry books I’ve brought—Hal Sirowitz, e e cummings, Sandra Cisneros, Amiri Baraka. “These are dangerous too,” he says. Then he laughs. “Okay,” they say as I run to the office I need to report to, shoving all my stuff back into my huge purse.
“I’m the poet from 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 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.
“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 that school in wanting to reach and to 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,” said 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 call 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 pink 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, still 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 their rooms. There’s been an accident at the World Trade Center. No one is to leave the premises.”
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, papers, people, swirling back into the air.
I think about anyone I know who might be near there, anyone who might work downtown. I can’t think of anyone. But where’s Lily? Where’s Mimi today? Didn’t she say she might be going downtown? I throw my things, coffee mug, my pens, my notebook, and the poetry books with their small yellow tabs indicating poems I might want to use in class, into my black backpack.
The kids turn to look at me. Most of them are larger than I am, but they look scared, lost. “Stay with us—what about us?” their faces say. The small girl who writes haikus says, “Take me with you. My parents moved away and left me here.” Her forehead creases with worry, reminding me of Lily’s when I’m going to work. “You’re not supposed to leave the room,” one of the kids says.
“I have to,” I say. “I have a baby. I have to find her. We live near the World Trade Center.” I run out, but not before the small kid sticks her pen into my arm right above my elbow. Not only am I ashamed to be leaving, I realize that I didn’t do a good job. I didn’t use their cues well, or offer closure, a kind of summing up. I run down all ten flights. The guards seem to be forming into flanks with their yellow belts and guns, but I manage to slip past them and the metal detectors, and out the massive front door. At the entrance to the subway, I hear that no trains are running. I look up and see crowds on their roofs all looking toward Manhattan as if they are planning on praying to Mecca. I begin the long walk home.
“Thank god you’re here,” I say, when Mimi comes to her door. “Thank god you’re OK. I wasn’t sure where you were.” Lily is in Mimi’s arms, jumping and kicking so that Mimi laughs as she hangs on to my kid with all her strength, while I wash some of the soot and grime off.
“They thought it was an accident—a plane smashing into the building,” Mimi says, but when it happened again, to the other building, they realized it was a terrorist act.”
Lily’s smiling now, her large mouth in her round elfin face, open, revealing her six teeth. The air, even inside Mimi’s apartment, smells unusual—of plastics and something sickly sweet. I can see the smoke from the site through Mimi’s living room window, while a smaller version is pictured on her TV set near the green bookshelves. Now Mimi looks worried. I am filthy and ragged. Cooper is beginning to cry. Lily is smiling with joy. She doesn’t have any idea yet about the things that can happen to us. To her. To me. Right now she holds out her thin baby arms to me. As I scoop her up, she presses me around with her tiny arms, then again, an extra little hug for me, as if we have the power to protect each other.