Honest Conversation Is Overrated
Actual Human Interactions Witnessed Or Overheard
In Twentieth And Twenty-First Century America
In Twentieth And Twenty-First Century America
I've been doing a bunch of high school poetry shows over the last few months. And, usually, at some point during the workshop, or during the slam, I'll look at all the kids around me and think, I wonder how the kids at my old high school would react. Then I remember the teachers at my public high school.
My geometry teacher, Miss Nichols, was a frumpy fifty-something former nun who would have made an incredible first grade or kindergarten teacher, but was entirely too condescending to deal with bored ninth graders. Every day she would mark the floor-to ceiling blackboard with brightly colored chalk outlines and ask questions that no one would raise their hands to answer. And when she realized that none of us gave a runny shit about what she was trying to teach us, she would grab the flowy part of her mumu, and announce "If you're going to sit and look at the floor, I'm going to sit and teach on the floor." And the rest of the class would be peppered with "Hello?"s every time we failed to respond to her inane questions. In my final report card of the year (I got a D-), she wrote that I would be "best served in a remedial math course." When, the next year, I was moved out of my pre-calculus class to ADVANCED CALCULUS AND TRIGONOMETRY (I got an A-), my mother photocopied both my boarding school report card, and the one that Miss Nichols had wrote the following year, along with a note suggesting Miss Nichols would be "best served in a remedial teaching course."
My Life Science teacher, Mr. Hickey, was an arrogant, gassy sixty-something former scientist. He made alphabetical seating charts, because he hated learning kids' names. Every class, my friend Brian and I would count how many times he yanked his tie, or threw chalk at people. And whenever he made an audible fart, we would chuckle, prompting Mr. Hickey to say "Stone, do you want a detention?" To which I replied "No." To which he replied, "Fine. Stanton, you've got a detention." This same teacher tried to give me a D on an embryology project because I couldn't for the life of me draw an attractive looking graph, chick, or egg. When I pointed out that it was a science class, and not an art class, I received my first detention, which I skipped. When my mother gave a copy of my embryology report (along with Hickey's comments on my artwork) to the principal, my detention was rescinded, and my grade was upped to a B-. The principal hated and feared my mom. As did I.
My French teacher was a nice enough lady, but she didn't teach me anything. I don't even remember her name. Ditto the man who taught history.
But poetry workshops are organized by English teachers, and its my Freshman year english teacher I choose to remember now. Mrs. Wallins was the bland, moderately friendly wasp you'd expect to teach high school English. She liked to drill students on the difference between metaphors and like similes. She favored the kids who read out loud well, and thus I was, for the first semester, one of her favorite students. As long as I didn't question her, we got along fantastically. Our midterm assignment was to write a short fiction piece about Valentine's Day. A week before the assignment was due, she'd gone on a rant about how much she hated second person narration, how she thought it was demeaning to the reader. So, naturally, I wrote my fiction piece in the second person. It wasn't fantastic. It won't change the face of literature, but it was pretty fucken good for a piece of crap high school assignment about love. In her comments, she mentioned that I would have scored much higher had I written the piece in a "more traditional voice." Since I'd made the decision to rile my teacher consciously, my mother refused to back me up.
For National Poetry Month, Mrs. Wallins had organized an open mic in the cafeteria, featuring all the students that would be included in the school lit journal. I had two poems accepted. They were terrible. Awful. Should have been banned from the English language. At the time, though, I was proud of them, and I showed them to one of my friends, Jeff, who wasn't in my class. He turned the poems in to his English teacher, who also submitted them to the lit journal. I was one of the first people to read, so I read my poems to a mixed reaction (the poems sucked, the kids were forced to be there), sat down, and prepared to get a "well done" clap on the back from Mrs. Wallins. Instead I received a whisper in my ear "We need to go to the principal's office. Now."
The battle over who wrote the poems wasn't pretty. Jeff argued that he'd written them. I cried. Parents were called. My mother played the stern, supportive woman who frightened high school principals, and Jeff's mother played the crazed psychopath who knew, KNEW that I'd been out to destroy her son since we started hanging out in fourth grade.
In the end, since neither of copped to the plagiarism, or had any proof that we'd written the poems first, we were both removed from the lit journal. And for the rest of the term, every time I turned in a piece of writing, Mrs. Wallins would ask "Did you write this?"
This year, for national poetry month, I have been asked to run a slam and poetry workshop at my old high school. I will be reading a series of poems in the second person in Mrs. Wallins' honor. I'll tell her how the last time I saw Jeff, I gave him permission to use those poems whenever he wanted (remember, they sucked), and that I recently googled Jeff to find out how his writing career was going. Curiously, when I googled his name and poetry, I didn't find anything. But when I googled his name and "police log", man did I get a bunch of hits. I was initially impressed by his career as a law enforcement agent, until I read a few of the pages and discovered he wasn't so much a police officer as a frequent suspect in a series of low-grade crimes. Apparently, he's gotten really sneaky at the breaking part of his criminal life, but his enterings frequently attract the notice of local police. Maybe I'll start doing a few prison workshops and readings so we can get back in touch.