Saturday, November 7, 2015

Where Were You?

I spent my morning at Mountain Fold Books with Dave Reynolds, creative writing teacher at the Fountain Valley School.  We debated line breaks. He talked about the allure of azure and other Latinates, while encouraging us to stick to the direct and honest Anglo-Saxon for imagery.  Then we read a poem called Where I Was by Dan Brown (not that Dan Brown), in which the author recalls where he was the day Kennedy was shot.  After that came a poem written by one of his high school students, which was modeled after Where I Was.  Her poem was, appropriately titled:  Where I Was, only it told the story of where she was on 9-11.  Then we wrote poems about where we were, on some significant date in history.  There is something about being given a form, a structure, and fitting your story into it, that is not cheating, but rather it is liberating within a constraint.  I think we have forgotten what it means to learn by imitation of the masters.  Anyway, here is mine.  It is titled, of course:

Where I Was

I was sitting in the front row of all
Places.  My eighth grade algebra class
Was solving for x in silence: the
Way Mr. Gunther liked it.   We feared his
Citizenship grade.  Every
Time you talked, he made a red x by
Your name in his always-open
grade-book. 5 x’s equalled 1 grade
deduction, 10 x’s equalled 2, and so on
in predictable function form.


The equation I don’t remember much
About:  your basic exercise
In keeping everything
Balanced.  How whatever you
Do to one side, you have to do
To the other. Algebra is nothing
If not just. The memorable thing
Was that the PA came on.  How our
Secretary began, “Attention, students”-


But not the announcement I expected.  Not
How the after-school dance was
Canceled. Not lunch menu changes.  Not
that the volleyball players
were to be dismissed after 5th period -
None of that. What the words amounted to
Wasn’t the worst thing: not
"President Reagan has been shot."
But rather that I had cheered.  Half the
Class erupted into applause.


Mr. Gunther, for the first and
Only time that year, closed his
Gradebook, stepped out from behind
His desk, and talked to us-angrily but with 
Conviction-about something other
Than solving equations in two variables.
That day,  I learned that compassion
Should always come before
Politics, and that citizenship means more
Than keeping silent and avoiding red x’s.

2 comments:

Jillian D said...

I am struck by how your poem is algebra in words..."an exercise in keeping everything balanced." From the vivid picture of the silent, seemingly checked-out, Mr. Gunther with the red pen awaiting it's next victim; to the chaos of President Reagan being shot and the reaction of applause as the "="; to the second variable of a teacher with presence and conviction enough to close the book of red x's and break his silence. Thus, for that "Where I Was" moment, the Great American algebraic equation of politics, citizenship, and compassion had been solved. :)

Thank you for sharing.

Katherine Stevens said...

Your words put me back there. I was in the same building, but not in the same classroom, that morning, but the response from both class and teacher were so much the same. It makes me imagine the uncountable numbers of kids our age, all over the country, that must have done the same thing. I only hope many of them heard the same lessons about what compassion and citizenship mean.