Around the driveway of your old school,
where the yellow bus, groaning, dumped
you at the door, drive the circle from then to
now. Park facing this building where bricks
were stacked a century ago. Cross the black
macadam. Pass the jungle gym where phantom
school children swing hopelessly from rusting
metal bars. Listen. Are they shrieking
or laughing or calling your name?
In the town where you were raised you’ve been asked to teach a workshop on writing poetry to lifetime learners. You will meet them in the building that was your first school. The granite steps to what has become the Town Hall are familiar. The double doors you filed through after recess–held open by teacher’s pets–have been replaced by a door you must open yourself. You climb the stairs to the territory of your first classroom where the walls and halls reek of renovations paid for by taxpayers of this old New England village, like you, who never vote to waste what might be saved.
Tiny desks have been traded for a conference table with chairs cushioned for grownups to sit on committees and figure out the rules for running the town. No learners have arrived. You choose an empty chair at the head of the table and sit with the ghosts of teachers who taught what has taken you this lifetime to unlearn.
It is naptime. Some ruler of school children made this sweet word stand for a period of silence, absolute. The lights are flipped off. The teacher crosses her blue veined legs under her desk in the darkened room where she is not napping. She is using her bright red pencil to correct sheets of subtraction. You are not napping. No one is allowed to sleep because it’s hard to wake up. You are allowed to bury your head in your hands and be silent. You do not have to close your eyes but you should. If you keep your eyes open you will notice things like the blackboard eraser Mrs. Barone dropped on the floor and forgot to pick up after proving 1 – 1 = 0. If you see her eraser you’ll have an impulse you should control but you can’t. If you have an impulse it might be to show her how eager and helpful you are. If you follow that impulse you will pick up the eraser and the teacher will notice how dangerous you are because it is naptime and you’re not allowed to break rules and disturb all the nappers who aren’t napping, but sitting, still, like they should, and if you try to explain you’ll be sent to stand facing the corner for not being silent and not asking permission. Your humiliation will not end there. Your shame is a secret you will want to keep from spreading. When you step off the bus after your friend from class she will have an impulse she cannot control to tell your mother the trouble you made the moment she sees her.
There is no longer a blackboard, but there are four corners. If you sit, silent and still, at the table of empty chairs before the students appear, you might find what is undesirable and holy as one minus one equals nothing. The void where a poem begins is a grave. Chop words, strike flames. Write fire, in the ghostly room, your pen on the page, burning. You might change in this fire, your walls and your world. You might love innocence. You might lift out of ash what cannot be killed in a corner.
Imagine this classroom. When lifetime learners who want to write poems appear, ask how many more seasons will you waste for permission? Show them how to grip a pen between index finger and thumb over a sugar white page and be willing to spoil it. Tell them to write not who they were, who they are, but who they might be, if. Tell them to write what they feel and haven’t said. Show them you love the way they will find to un- silence it. You love how their words shit onto the page letting the mess belong where it belongs. How they face walls, tell what they’re hiding. Let them see how a poem begins, urgently, vulnerably as a prayer, and ends with a question – who is changed?