Teach (1986; a long fragment)

Clouds like flowers
Offset the fading background of the sky,
Slightly browned
By the Greyhound's tinted window.
Spring, five thirty-four
As the bus passes Avandale.


In my apartment this morning:
Six AM alarm
Six-twenty before I
Pull myself out of bed
Stretch nude,
Shed sleep like snakeskin
Step over a scale-strewn floor.
  Outside it's drizzling.
I stand in front of a mirror
Waiting for the shower to heat,
Run a hand through my tousled hair
Over an unshaven cheek,
  Then step into the steaming water.
    Hot tendrils caress my thighs
Like a girl's hands.
Wet fingers run through my scalp and
Along my body,
Massage my back.
  A radio's playing nearby:
  A voice plays through my head
  In stereo.
My mind's with the gentle pressure
Of terrycloth, rubbing against me,
With the probe of a razor,
And elsewhere.
  Soon, the rain stops.


  Reveries on a walk to the train,
Red brick sidewalk slick with water,
Trees shiny and moist:
  Today's my last day teaching,
  Like the end of a book
I don't want to put down.
  Sinews of reluctant memories
   Play through my mind.
I'm twenty years old,
College student, teacher
The dew and the newspaper sing a duet
That goes nowhere while I go
To North Broad,
Broad and Lehigh.
The station smells of urine
As I step off the train
And walk toward school.


   First Period
 In a high school in May,
 (Students like dandelion petals)
 Drifts across my senses.
Kim, naive dandelion girl
Is out pregnant.
She'll be back
Next year, she writes,
Her dreams unfluttered,
Her boyfriend history.
She'll give the baby up,
But I don't know that yet.
 Dave, the musician, is
  Absent again
The blackboard's still covered
With his scrawlings from Tuesday
Kevin's here:
Tall, solid and
Unassuming, quiet
But not so quiet as he was.


Daydreaming over ditto-masters
When a sophomore class
Brings a cake in,
And two watercolored cards from a
Tall, pretty, North-Philly girl,
One of them signed by all...
     We want to thank you for every-
   thing you done for us.  Without your
    help we probably wouldn't have made
     it this far.  Good luck to you.  We're
      gonna miss you....
    I have so much gratitude for
  your help.  If you wouldn't have gave
   your time and patience I probably wouldn't
    have passed American History.
   I will always remember you.  Thanks
     for everything you done for me.
                   Your student,
There are seven of them.
The boys are stolid
Like ghetto-boys ought to be:
 They wear their dark skins like armor.
 Aaron and David impassively
Refuse to turn in work,
One barely passing,
The other failing a
Ragged parody of life
(characters of their
caricature neighborhood).
Jethro flashes sad humor
When he talks.
Richard the graffiti artist
Now retired
Writes well when he can force himself;
His troubled conscience
Stalks the inside of his mind like a
Pacing tiger, measuring his cage.
    The girls are different.
Sara shines sometimes
Flies like a bird
(Soaring sunlight on wings)
Stretches her wings
And outreaches the world.
 She's sometimes afraid of her wings
 Or she forgets how to use them.
Christina is a firebrand,
 A young girl dragon
 Fifteen in passion,
She's dragon-strong; also
Tender, vulnerable,   fawn-shy.
Shahodah's tall, thin
And darkly long-legged:
  Crouched and shivering
    (Like a wounded winter bird
      Haunting my windowsill)
  Between youth and adulthood.


It's autumn:
My twentieth birthday.
I wear a new tie
Through some perverse urge
To dress up
A thin stripe of green forest
Over a grey-blue shirt,
Plays gently against my clothing
Like a lone tree against
  Blue and grey
    Sky and sea.
The early morning train I ride
On surreal tracks of its own,
A misty platform
Riding the dawn barrier
Between brusque awareness and aloof slumber.
The fleeting morning,
A spurt of sense-impressions:
 Teaching until ten AM;
  The economics class spent
Talking of tests and trains.
The history class test review,
Cramming Jackson's democracy into a single hour.
At Temple, my own classes
Ripple similarly short lived
On the surface of my mind:
     Reading Walt Whitman out loud,
    Swimming in another man's vision,
  Just breaking the surface
  To glance at faces
  Glimpse into the eyes of a pretty girl and
  Briefly remember some
  Lines from my past,
  Somehow meaningful:
  A poem by someone else,
  Read years ago in a bathroom in Boston.
Talking of power in an education class,
Material meant to be taken too seriously;
I'm gliding through,
Hearing differently
From the rest of the world
For a brief shadow of time.
  Something's changed
In the penetration of
The fragility of a day.
  I meet my sister
For dinner, after my classes:
Birthday celebration
Planned on the spur of the moment last night.
Meg and I talk for an hour or so,
And then both go elsewhere.
   Tonight, my first parent-teacher conference
 As a teacher.
Not quite like anything
I've ever done before,
Talking to parents of
Students hardly younger than myself
About their children's talents
As if they aren't all talented.
That night, words flow in tapestries.
I don't remember what I say,
Only the colors.  Love.
  A teacher at the high school
Drives me back
To Germantown in a pouring rain.
     The last hill I run up
    Has turned to a waterfall
   In the dark rain.
I fall asleep and dream,
But have forgotten the dreams by morning.


All choked up over the cake,
I don't quite cry.
Faces surround me,
People I've touched and shared with;
May sun shines through the window's narrow grating.
I could do this forever.


Fourth period history,
Sun shining in the outer room.
This is the exotic class,
Half of them
(talking in Russian by habit)
Gossiping to each other
Then looking up and
Smiling innocently,
As if I understood what they had said.
Angela's an alleycat girl:
Quick-flying eyes
are faster than her cohort of
Marianna and Mila,
More young Russian girls
One very dark, the other pale,
Neither quite so catlike.
Both smile, shy or mock-shy
At this American world,
 Now American girls.
Tanya and Wesley
Make a mercurial pair.
Not lovers,
But something more than friends
   (how long did it take me
 to figure that out?).
An off-and-on pair
Both talented, sometimes,
Then surprisingly sulky at others.
  Remember last winter
  With Marianna and Mila,
  Explaining again
  What plagiarism meant
  What cheating was and how they'd done it
  For perhaps the fourth time.
  They'd copied the article from an encyclopedia,
  Of course, again.
  Would it have been a game to fail them then?
  They didn't understand.
  I just told the two girls, bright and dark,
  To try again, again:
  Hoped that maybe this time
  One would try,
  Remember Spring,
  When Wesley learned to write
  And found the same
  Simple words, juxtaposed
  In some arbitrary fashion
  Could make a pretty good sentence.
  And sentences made paragraphs,
  And paragraphs made thoughts.
Whispers in Russian and street-English
Fade into the sunlit dust
Which swirls around the room
And preoccupies my thoughts of teaching.


Fifth period,
Once my favorite class.
Melissa: long black hair
Outlining her pale, pretty face in ringlets;
Sullen, overweight Erika,
Moody Tina,
Kim a tall flower,
Small Parmenus,
Unpredictably detailed.
  I heal my fight with Melissa.
 She's dark haired and volatile.
        It's October and Melissa surrenders
        Cut and bleeding
        Her South-Philadelphia pride
        Is shattered.
        Will you write?
      By quarter's end I ask
      To be allowed to pass her.
      Later, her average up to B's,
      Will you keep this up? And
      She in turn queries:
      Will you be here for the rest of the year?
      Yes, I reply.
      Then I will, says she.
    Her prose is dark and beautiful,
    Her writing far beyond her years,
    Her pained voice painted
    Cynical and hurt.
  In the spring, she stops writing.
  And I react angrily,
  Unfairly I think.
 Now we talk
 Outside of class.
 Coffeesmoke drifts in my face
 As we remind ourselves
 We're friends,
 Exchange addresses
 And pretend we'll keep in touch.


Memories fade
As the bus moves on;
Sleep intrudes
Long before the day is finished.
I'll go back again I think,
Dreaming by now
But even dreaming, I know
I can only go forward
Wherever the bus takes me.

I wrote this more than 30 years ago, and I'd certainly write parts of it very differently today. Some of the images don't really work for me anymore; but then, I'm in a very different place than I was then. I never was able to finish it. This was an attempt to look at what it is that makes teaching so important to me, and why it's wound so inextricably in my life - much more so than I realized at the time.

Sadly, I've lost touch with all of the former students from my Philadelphia days. One of them called once, years later, but my then-wife took the call and didn't get a return phone number. The occasional web search hasn't yielded anything.

One of the hardest things about teaching is never knowing how the stories turn out.

Copyright © 1986 by Leigh Grossman