Putting out the Trash

trashFor the past couple of days, my freshmen have been doing a collaging activity, which is a teaching euphemism for “chopping up donated magazines and pasting them on printer paper.”

With few exceptions, the English teachers at my school have all new students this semester due to our new pilot program. I don’t know my new freshmen (three classes worth, all above capacity) very well yet, but it was immediately clear that I was going to have some classroom management “challenges” (which is a teaching euphemism for “stuff that really sucks”). One of my classes is under the thrall of a nasty ringleader; another class is a perfect storm of smart-alecky ne’er-do-wells who all feed off of each others’ poor behavior. The third class might be pretty okay except for the fact that they’ve crammed almost 40 kids into the room, and once that stampede starts there’s little I’ll be able to do to head it off.

For the duration of the collage lesson, I’ve been riding herd on these three clowders in an attempt to keep them working and, wherever possible, actually following the instructions. On top of that, I’ve had to ask, beg, direct, and threaten them to clean up their work areas. I’ve never had such a hard time getting students to clean up after themselves. I can walk up to a trio of kids and point directly at the garbage by their feet, ask them to pick it up, and they’ll pretend they don’t hear me. Piles of magazines left in chairs. Markers and rulers thrown under desks. Finally, I’ve succumbed to treating them like junior high kids and have made myself into a barricade across the door, refusing to let any/ of them leave when the bell rings until I’m satisfied with the condition of the room.

(“It’s not my mess.” Well, do you want to leave on time? Then you might ought to chip in.)

I am not entirely certain that freshmen are my thing.

Today, though, I was pleased to see that my nagging had paid off. The room wasn’t pristine or anything, but there was nothing horrifying left over after Hurricane Adolescence passed through. Then I looked at my magazine bin and saw that it had split down the side, spilling old copies of US News & World Report onto the carpet, so I decided to take a few minutes to switch out to a plastic bin and toss out the magazines that were no longer salvageable.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the box was half filled with garbage. Wadded up papers, tiny scraps, even broken pencils and candy wrappers. A crushed empty water bottle.

Blood pressure mounting, I spent about half an hour filling my garbage cans with freshman detritus. As I moved around the room, I found garbage in my bookcases, hidden under the textbooks under the desks, in the plastic shoebox with the colored pencils and — in a moment that will surely go down in history — stuffed into the shavings drawer of the electronic pencil sharpener.

I’m really not sure that freshmen are my thing.

I dragged my small garbage cans into the hall (they were too heavy for me to pick up) and sat down for a few minutes to work on the poetry packet for Contemporary Literature (a junior/senior class). Flipping through anthologies, my eyes fell on “Overworked” by Lucy Partlow:

After we
and prostrate ourselves to creation . . .

After we
raise children
raise grandchildren
raise men
raise hell
and raise the dead in tribal dance . . .

After we
clean house
clean clothes
clean collard greens
clean people’s stores
and clean up the aftermath of wars . . .

After we save souls
save schools
save trees
save whales
and save the world from eternal damnation . . .

After we do
the impossible
the improbable
the unthinkable . . .

Must we also put out the trash?

On first glance, I read it as a reflection on womanhood. Upon my second pass, I realized it could also be about teaching. Being a teacher is a sisyphean task, not only in terms of teaching and re-teaching content an endlessly rotating cast of students, but also of trying to help young people survive their world and themselves long enough to grow up.

The process of developing curriculum, units, and lessons is not unlike that of gestation and birth, accompanied by exhaustion, discomfort, fear, doubt, and impatience to see how it all turns out. We prostrate ourselves to the creation of lessons that meet ever-changing bureaucratic requirements and the needs of dizzyingly diverse students. We give of our lifeblood to nurture and nourish our students’ minds and even bodies.

We raise children when their parents can’t or won’t. We hope they take something of us with them when they leave our classes, that our influence will carry on into their future lives — that, perhaps, they will teach their descendents (biological or not) something we’ve taught them. We try to raise sloppy boys into men and snotty girls into women. We, protective lion(esse)s that we are, raise hell when our cubs are threatened. We, the storytellers and memory-keepers, dance the past into life.

Many of the best teachers I’ve known address teaching — knowingly or not — as a ministry. We know that, for some of these kids, we are the only thing they’ve got. We know that souls, if not being saved (fortunately, I can’t think of any teachers I know who have messiah complexes) are at least being shielded and fed. Good teachers are activists, some quiet and some not; they’re shepherds and counselors and paladins. Good teachers fight for the future, on a small scale — each student’s next year — and, when they aren’t too exhausted to think about it, on a global scale.

Every day, I see my colleagues do little bitty things that are impossible, improbable, unthinkable. Most days, we’re talking grains of sand… but over the course of a career, individual grains of sand build dunes.

And of course, we put out the trash.

Literally, with cuts to custodial staff due to budget problems, we take out our own garbage and are given economy-sized bottles of Spic-n-Span so that we can disinfect our own classrooms.

Figuratively, we deal with the day-to-day garbage of an overextended system, the environmental garbage of a society that doesn’t (or can’t) value education, and the rising tide of political garbage that threatens to flush stressed and disgusted educators out of the system.

Nightly, we drag our carcasses home after a long day of raising other peoples’ children and trying to save the world, and if we’re able, we leave the garbage of the day at the curb before we walk in to our homes.

Don’t paint pictures of teachers in capes, turning thugs into academics through the power of hip-hop and street toughs. Sketch them, instead, with a garbage can full of magazine clippings, closing the door to an almost-tidy classroom behind them until the next morning.


If you’ve got a few minutes, and want to give yourself a treat (because I know you, you bibliophile, and I know you’d like this), then go and read Albert Goldbarth’s meandering, hand-drumming poem “Library.”

I think I’m going to print it out and put it on the wall next to my classroom library. Maybe.

An excerpt:

I open this book and smoke pours out, I open this book and a bad sleet
    slices my face, I open this book: brass knuckles, I open this book: the
    spiky scent of curry, I open this book and hands grab forcefully onto my
    hair as if in violent sex, I open this book: the wingbeat of a seraph, I
    open this book: the edgy cat-pain wailing of the damned thrusts up in a
    column as sturdy around as a giant redwood, I open this book: the travel
¬†¬†¬†¬†of light, I open this book and it’s as damp as a wound, I open this book
    and I fall inside it farther than any physics, stickier than the jelly we
    scrape from cracked bones, cleaner than what we tell our children in the
¬†¬†¬†¬†dark when they’re afraid to close their eyes at night.

On the Nature of Things

Today’s poem is in translation from the original Latin, which makes it a heck of a lot older than I would have guessed based on its voice/diction. Well translated, Frank O. Copley!

From Book II of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (ca. 99-55 BC):

…Do you see now: though outside force propel
people and push them willy-nilly on,
and hurry them headlong, still within our hearts
there’s something that resists and can fight back…


Today’s daily poem is “Piano,” by Dan Howell.

 Her wattled fingers can’t
stroke the keys with much
grace or assurance anymore,
and the tempo is always
rubato, halting, but still
that sound‚ÄĒnotes quivering
and clear in their singularity,
filing down the hallway‚ÄĒ
aches with pure intention, the
melody somehow prettier
as a remnant than
whatever it used to be.



I love today’s poem (Albert Goldbarth’s “Liquid“). The way it ends, with the portrait of the speaker’s mother, is so good. And at the beginning, the portrayal of the math teacher… so right, so true…

…And Mrs. Sommerson,
the Great Stone Face my mother called her,
regent of the Eighth-Grade Algebra Kingdom, she
who pity’s violin strings couldn’t move a quarter inch
from her unyielding scowl and decimal-pointed grade book …
when one evening I was late in leaving,
and quietly making my passage
down those eerily untenanted halls, I saw
her home room door was opened just enough to show her
at her desk, in tears, her head held in her hands
with such an autonomous weight, she cradled it
as if trying to rock into comfort a terrorized infant…

Transitions (Or: Billy Collins is a Rock Star)

Today’s Daily Poem comes from Billy Collins, who is my favorite poet and absolutely a rock star. It is called “A Word About Transitions,” and it is far too good in its entirety for me to screw it up by posting an excerpt. If you are an English teacher, a writer, a reader of poetry, or just a person who likes a smart laugh, go read this poem and enjoy.


From “7” by Niels Frank, as translated by Roger Greenwald:

In the ice-clear picture I may then see God
as an unbelievably beautiful
           constantly shimmering pattern
though it’s hard for me to believe.
In the picture you and I are reunited “after all these years”
though I can’t believe that either.
It’s too good to be true. Or too true
to be good.


I’m afraid I’ve never felt any passion for a clarinet, but I can empathize with this speaker when I think of instruments that have touched my heart. From Joanne Diaz’s “Clarinet“:

…I forgot how many times
   it brought me to that burning light,
that spinning wheel, but tonight
   in the shower, before
our guests arrived, I pressed my ear
¬† ¬†to your narrow back and heard the rain‚ÄĒ
the singular, metronomic beat,
   the legato hum of your voice breaking
the cylinder of your body.


Got another good one from Poetry Daily. This one resonated with me for a few different reasons. First, the seniors are reading Beowulf, which – like “The First Solitude” – has the flow of a story-song, that propensity of an epic poem toward tangential back-story and allusion. Secondly, I’m reading a book about Christopher Columbus, and it occurs to me on my 5th or 6th look at this poem that it is quite possibly talking about Columbus and the conquest of the New World. Thirdly, I like to learn something new, and this poem taught me a new word. Appetence is a strong desire, natural affinity, or tendency. Personified, it is the hero-villain of this excerpt of Luis de G√≥ngora poem, “The First Solitude,” the first stanza of which I now offer up to you:

Appetence now is pilot, not of errant
trees, but of entire, mutable forests,
and first to leave Ocean, the father of waters
‚ÄĒof whose vast royal domain
the Sun, who day after day
is born in his waves and in his waves finds death,
does not wish to know boundaries or extent‚ÄĒ
with hair turned white by the spume greed leaves behind,     
though he admits no second
in professing those limits to the world.

Or, in the original Spanish:

Piloto hoy la Codicia, no de errantes
√°rboles, mas de selvas inconstantes,
al padre de las aguas Océano
‚ÄĒde cuya monarqu√≠a
el Sol, que cada día
nace en sus ondas y en sus ondas muere,
los t√©rminos saber todos no quiere‚ÄĒ
dejó primero de su espuma cano,
sin admitir segundo
en inculcar sus límites al mundo.