Nothing at all Whole or Shut
Posted on May 14th, 2014
I touch the boy on the arm. They say you aren’t supposed to touch the students but I’ve found that there are some, pulled left and right and up and down by a herd of A’s and D’s and those most pernicious of H’s, that need the physical contact to separate my voice from everything else.
“I want you to try the ones I’ve circled again,” I say. His whole body shows his shift in attention from me to the vocabulary list on the desk; his neck snaps forward, his feet jump and then brace on the dirty linoleum, his fingers – all ten of them – spasm and the point of his pencil smashes onto the page, crumbling into a soft pile of gray dust under the word tumultuous. “You’ve used them all like adjectives,” I say. His neck snaps up again and for the briefest moment one hundred percent of his attention bores into my eyes, taking my breath away, like it always does.
“I know,” he says, with an abashed grin; “I always do that.” A student across the room sneezes and suddenly he’s gone from our conversation; his feet jump, his hands twitch, and his head snaps around toward the noise.
There’s a poem by Mary Oliver I’ve been trying to work into the curriculum. I go down to the edge of the sea. I’ll have to wait until next year, however, because I don’t think I can take the explosion of protest when I say we’re going to do a poem. How everything shines in the morning light! Right now I’m too tired. There’s only so much combat my soul can take. The cusp of the whelk, the broken cupboard of the clam, the opened, blue mussels, moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred— and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split, dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
One of the girls in 5th period lost her brother last fall. He was also a student at the school. Younger. I didn’t know him. On a quiz last week she was reflecting about her family’s social class and wrote that there were five, then crossed out “five” with one straight line and wrote “four” people living in her household. It was the first time I cried while grading.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
I repeat directions. I repeat definitions. I repeat what’s going to be on the final until I feel as though maybe we’ve already taken it and should just go home now. Halfway through a novel one boy turns to me and says, “wait, this isn’t true?” and I can only stare, speechless for a moment. “No,” I say. “It’s fiction. I’ve said that every day for the last two months.” It’s a frustrating read, I’ll give him that, and he debates the author’s intent with me for thirty minutes. “I’m actually mad right now,” he says, and, “I don’t think I’ve ever argued about a book before.” I give him a high five; screw whoever says I shouldn’t touch them.
This story is beautiful, I tell them. First you figure out what each one means by itself, the author might not have meant the window to symbolize all that, the jingle, but if you read it that way, the periwinkle, it’s interesting and complicated, the scallop full of moonlight, just like life. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, or if it would never work that way, or how the Cyclops milked his goats if his hands were so big – sure, maybe they were giant goats – what matters is if it makes you feel and think and takes your breath away, even for just a moment.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
A guidance counselor tells me that the students like me. “Really?” I ask. “Well,” he says, “they don’t complain about you, and that’s pretty much the same thing.”