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What Have We Become?

In a few days I will return to work. I am a teacher. I have been working from home since mid-March. The spring was rough and non-productive; as soon as the seniors figured out that grades stopped on the day before they were sent home, they stopped working. I do not blame them. They are driven and smart. And by that point they had all been accepted to college. I do blame the lack of national, state, and local leadership for what has happened since March. There has been so much left undone, which could have been done to prevent so much illness and death. But here we are.

My wife’s parents in their 80’s are in Ft. Worth with her sister right now. Her sister moves to Atlanta sometime after the New Year. My in-laws will come back to live with us after that. Our jobs could kill them. Since my wife has gone back to work in her building two weeks ago, we have not been able to see our grandson. In about six weeks my son’s wife will have another boy, who we will not be able to see because of the risk of Covid. The choice between incomes/careers and the safety of our families is truly fucked. I am not a front-line worker. I am an English teacher. I talk about poetry, and literature, how to write an argument.. to find wisdom in the art of the past.

Austin teachers return to their buildings on October 5th, ironically enough, World Teacher day. The majority of the students will stay home, and continue to do school through their computers.  I have been teaching my students for the last three weeks virtually from home. I will continue to teach my students virtually from a room in the very old building where I usually teach my students in person. I, along with two other teachers, will rotate into a room where 9 or so seniors and juniors, who are coming back into the building for various reasons, will be learning in the room using their computers to access their teachers who are teaching virtually from other rooms in the building, or, if the teacher has qualified for ADA or FMLA, from their homes. The students in the building will stay in the room with me and the other two teachers all day.

Do not misunderstand me. I miss seeing my students every day that I am on the computer with them. My students are the absolute best. I wish that I was in the room with them, listening to them talk to each other about poetry and literature. Watch them as they have first encounters with some of the great literature from the last few hundred years. They need little encouragement to engage with deep thoughts with complete delight, making connections to their lives and obsessions, which usually concern topics of social justice. A topic which has become foremost in all of our lives because of Covid. However, I do not want any of them to become ill with this horrible virus, and possibly die. They do not have to be that close to the harshness of life which poetry and literature unfolds for many of us.

And that is the rub, the elephant in the room, the one fact that no one talks about: people are going to die because of a rash decision to open the schools. People are going to die. Say that again: people are going to die. It could be  staff at the school, teachers, librarians, principals. It could be students, someone’s child, who dies. It could be the parents or grandparents at home who are infected by the children they love.  Now, here is where I fail to understand: why are the powers-that-be willing to risk the death of so many people. Nothing has changed since March when everything closed down. There is not a vaccine; the numbers of infected are still setting record numbers, and people are still dying, lots of people are still dying. 

Is remote learning as effective as face to face in the classroom? No, it is not. Is it safer for everyone? Yes it is. Are we that desperate to return to the way things were that we are willing to sacrifice large numbers of our family and neighbors? If so, then I hate to think that anyone thought normal meant willingly allowing death to roam the streets so that we can go have a beer at the local brewery. There must be something more pernicious in play. I fear for us all.

(September 29, 2020)

gently down the stream

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (49)

our lives changed

around him

the first born

.

that summer he turned one

I read dante and the moderns

for grad school

.

at night I’d rock him singing

row row row your boat

until he’d drift to sleep

.

now he has a child

and that summer

floats away into dream

.

like a mountain river

we happily crossed

splashing in the sun

(April 7 2020)

as if he must explain

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (32)

after dad died

I would wear his shirts

they were too large

for my adolescent body

.

thin wisps of skin 

like spider’s silk

drift in the wind

.

each new mask adhered

to and was shaped by

the one that came before

.

my feet are numb now

as if on fire

.

as the ground slips away

I grasp for space

.

I don’t know how I got here

or where I’m coming from

I’m tired and out of breath

I need to sit down 

.

when asked I don’t know

who I am or where

.

I think of my father

and how he died gasping

for air drowning in phlegm

.

and my collar grows tight

.

(February 24, 2020)

Dispersion

When we scattered mother,

the ash swirled about me

like a cape. I breathed her

in, then spit out what 

I could into the winter grass.

Metaphor’s bitter aftertaste

lingered between my teeth

for years. Now, left with

a handful of ash to toss

to the wind, I resist this

final gesture, and begin

again. Life’s easy without

thought, or a nearby pattern

to hold one together, despite

death’s constant push to contain 

the living who remain.

(December 12, 2019)

Hansel Grows Old

Bread crumbs were not enough—

insubstantial as memory 

flitting away like sparrows

through the trees. He was lost,

tangled in possibility’s inevitable

collapse; he could not pull past

the brush to a salient interpretation:

where he went, where he was going,

or what language he now spoke.

She had fled years ago,

escaped to the witches who

had forgiven her childhood

sins. She no longer believed

in the lies of her father,

the long walks in the woods

with her brother. She returned

now for some redemption,

only to find him not at home.

(October 25, 2019)

Mother

 

Not from any petulant resentment,

Nor a lack of matriarchal love, but

It does not bother me much now

That mom died a decade ago.

Worry distracted her and kept

Her distant. She wanted me

To be something she wanted

To be, without regard for me.

Her love, no doubt, was sincere,

But was obligated, and entangled

With obligations in return with

A thousand hair-thin lines to untie.

Like rags, I wring my hands, like her;

And wish, like her, I was someone else.

(October 8, 2018)

A Part Apart

A story’s comfort
comes in retelling.
The pattern laid out
like a blue quilt;
each square tightly
stitched to someone
else’s contribution,
someone’s scraps.
It’s taken time
to listen close,
to follow a thread
from knot to knot;
until I, too, am
woven whole.

(July 9, 2016)