TEACHER POEMS

by

Taylor Mali

Morgan Parker

Danny Shot

&

Brenda Shaughnessy

••••••

TAYLOR MALI

Mr. Lockett and His Lemon Cars

Mr. Lockett told our entire 8th grade
that failing his science class would require
more work than it would to simply pass.

In fact, if the only thing you did all year
was read the captions in the textbook . . .
that would probably get you a B+
, he said.

And so he drew his lemon cars on the board—
he only drew cars that looked like actual lemons—
while we learned about force, and mass, and speed.

One random lemon car travels west, another east,
but both meet similar brick-wall fates.

And so the questions followed:

What were the lemons’ force and speed?
What lemon devastation would be made
from the collisions? Oh, what lemonade!

We drank it in like the random rain that falls
historically after most major battles
(the rising particles of dust providing,

Mr. Lockett said, vortices around which
water molecules can form and start to fall).
And I cannot tell you if in this poem we were

the dust, or the rain, the textbook, the battle,
or the B+. Or were we all just random lemon cars
of different speeds and forces, traveling our random

masses into different walls? Either way, we chose
to work, realizing perhaps what Mr. Lockett knew:
we did not have what it would take to fail.

taylor mali is a four-time National Poetry Slam champion and the author of four collections of poetry as well as a book of essays, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. He was one of the original poets to appear on the hbo series Def Poetry Jam.

“Mr. Lockett and his Lemon Cars.” Copyright © 2018 by Taylor Mali.

••••••

MORGAN PARKER

Who Were Frederick Douglass’s Cousins, and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School

I have a body. It sits in a desk.
Every day is bitten with new guilt.
My teacher can see right
through me, all the way
to Black History Month.
It is my fortune to be
ashamed, and from nowhere.
How can I concentrate
on photosynthesis when
there is a thing called Africa?
When my teacher talks about slaves,
I become a slave. I know too much.
I raise my hand. American flag
and family tree. Is it my fault
my stomach aches? I wait
in my desk and try to be still.
I lie and immediately confess.
I grow a plant in a paper towel.
I get in trouble for talking.
At recess, I pretend.
The mountains are closing in.
I am good, but too curious.
What happened to the Indians?
How do we know about heaven,
and dragonflies?
Where did Harriet Tubman sleep?
Who did Harriet Tubman kiss?
What about the Africans that stayed?
Why are they hungry?
Did Frederick Douglass’s mother
brush his hair in the mornings?
Was he tender-headed and afraid?
Is this how I am supposed to feel?
Are you sure? How do you know?

morgan parker is the author of two poetry collections: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a graduate fellow at Cave Canem.

“Who Were Frederick Douglass’s Cousins, and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School.” Copyright © 2018 by Morgan Parker.

••••••

DANNY SHOT

Morir Soñando (with a dash of rum)

Been doing this for 22 years
you should know better, but you don’t.
The principal who hired you as assistant principal
though you had no license is a bitch
and on your case because you are sympathetic
to the new teachers. She hired you
the people person, to improve morale
which you have done by taking the staff
out for drinks on Friday afternoons.
Now she hates you for it.

Relegated to cafeteria duty three periods a day.
Every day.
The job: keep the thuggish boys
from the high school slated to close
off the fresh-faced girls from your school.
Your life sucks.

But, there’s Isabel, Katrina, Milagros, and Neli
period seven for Honors Spanish 11
which you teach though your knowledge
of the language doesn’t extend beyond
¿Dónde está la biblioteca?
You do this because the regular teacher,
an Orthodox Jew from Mexico City,
spends every afternoon in your office
crying bitterly, asking “Why? Why? Why?”
She does not have a way with kids.

You do the honorable thing
and take her four most fluent students
and teach them Spanish.

They read Garcia Márquez, Lorca, and Julia Alvarez
in Español while you teach in English,
then they work together in Spanish
and write essays which you give to
the nervous Spanish teacher to grade.

Katrina and Milagros are in your English class,
Katrina is a gifted writer. Milagros works hard
and volunteers for everything,
handing out papers, reading aloud,
erasing the board, translating phone calls.

Sometimes you wonder if Isabel’s jeans are painted on,
why she smells like lavender and mango at the same time.
She confides that she has not seen her father
in ten years. He has another family in the D.R.
It’s flattering that she chooses to sit next to you
on the bus trip to Boston, falling asleep with her head
on your shoulder through Connecticut
and you wonder why she wants you so badly
to meet her mother who she is sure you will like.

One day Katrina brings in coquitos,
Puerto Rican eggnog.
You all agree it’s delicious.
Then she tells you it’s spiked with rum
and you worry you’re going to lose your job.
She tells you she was only kidding,
but you’re not so sure.

Milagros teaches you Puerto Rican songs about ole San Juan.
Everyone sings along. The next day she brings in Shakira
and Calle 13 and the girls dance, hips shaking
and jiggling while mouthing the words
and you know this is wrong,
even though Isabel says “¿Maestro,cómo se supone
que cantamos sin mover nuestros cuerpos?”
Maybe it’s a cultural thing
though you can sing without moving your entire body.

Neli, the anorexic, comes in drunk one day
and throws up all over her math class.
You offer her a Life Saver and she looks
at you like you’re crazy, or worse, an old man,
“Do you know how many calories that has?”
As assistant principal, you call her parents
and send her to counseling.

The next day she comes to class with
a handwritten note (full of hearts over the i’s),
thanking you for caring, and telling you she’s
not mad that you called her parents,
and it’s obvious you care about her well being
more than her parents ever will.
The note says she’s thankful to have you.
You wonder if this is at all appropriate
full well knowing the answer
but what are you going to do?

Milagros arrives late for class
in tears “A man touched me on the subway.
Why do they always pick on me?
What is it about me, why me?”
You console her and tell her it’s not her,
there are a lot of creeps out there
especially on the trains. You tell
her to be aware, which is the best
you can offer as she sobs uncontrollably
while Isabel whispers something to her in Spanish.

For the final exam the girls prepare
a feast for the other Spanish class,
morir soñando (orange drink and milk)
which is hopefully not spiked,
plates of arroz con habichuelas,
empanadas, tostones, pernil,
dulce de leche, and mango ices.

They wear slinky shiny dresses, blue eye
shadow, and fire-red lipstick for the fiesta.
They dance to La Vida Loca, again wiggling
and jiggling and you worry what
the nervous Spanish teacher will think.
What will happen if the principal walks in?
The other students lose all sense of decorum,
make a conga line snaking around the room
before sitting down to the feast.

The girls each earn grades of 95 for Honors Spanish 11
except for Neli, who was absent a few times too many
so she gets a 90. The year ends.
You leave the school,
get a job in a dismal school
where the students wear uniforms.
The year grinds to a close.

You go to graduation in your old school,
Four bouquets of tulips in hand.
The principal tries to have you removed.
You wave her off like a bad dream.

Katrina goes to a near-Ivy college in Boston.
Milagros attends a Catholic university in Virginia.
Isabel moves back to Santo Domingo
to live with her abuelos.
Neli gets a job at Macy’s doing makeup
on the first floor.

Facebook erases time and distance.
Isabel, Katrina, Milagros, and Neli
Lolitas, luces de tu vida
lights of your life.

danny shot was a longtime publisher and editor of Long Shot magazine, which he co-founded. He taught high school English for 33 years in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn. His book of poems, WORKS, was published by CavanKerry Press in March 2018.

“Morir Soñando (with a dash of rum)” from WORKS by Danny Shot. Published by CavanKerry Press. Copyright © 2018 by Danny Shot.

••••••

BRENDA SHAUGNESSY

To My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Self

Billy Collins, have you any
Idea how important

You were to my twenty-five-year-
Old self? You weren’t

Poet laureate yet, you
Were just a teacher I had

In Ireland. You were
Expansive and you

Believed in me.
I felt like a real poet

With you for the first
Time even though we

Argued about feminism
And things that mattered.

I was just at that cusp
Of being someone who wanted

So desperately to write,
Tipping over into becoming a writer.

I was fighting it. I didn’t know
How to be except angry.

I was frightened. What if I
Could be good? What if

I would never be good?
Would your attention

Be all I’d ever really have
Of poetry? How could I know?

And so I was angry at you.
And between the lesbian

Love I’d left in New York
Who, I’m grateful, convinced

Me to buy contact lenses
So I could see the green

Hills, and the British physicist
I’d end up in bed with

Before I’d left Ireland,
There was something pure

And aboveboard, not teacherly
But generous, and lovely

And incomplete and no
One thing. I won’t forget it:

The way you laughed
At some mean joke, at some

Ugly truth, into the wind
So it blew back into our happy,

Stupid faces on a ferry made me understand,
This is love the way poets know it.

brenda shaughnessy was born in Japan and grew up in California. She’s the author of Interior with Sudden Joy, Human Dark with Sugar (winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets), Our Andromeda, and So Much Synth.

“To My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Self ” from Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy. Published by Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2012 by Brenda Shaughnessy. Re-printed by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.