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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)

limbo

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (61)

months of laconic weeks drift

past as the centuries two-step

a dance macabre about the village

square like old lovers late at night

dance slowly arms entwined 

in a practiced grace

your death’s not important 

to them any more than mine 

only this dance matters

the horror of it lies 

in the death head’s grin

which does not pretend 

to hide its deception 

there is no skin to map 

its laughter into flowers

across our blind eyes 

no dead platitudes to act 

as balm for our world in flames

(June 14, 2020)

dark earth

from a work in progress: process, not a journey (60)

obsessively the earth gives birth

to its dead rich and fertile

safe inside itself unseen

unvoiced like ecstatic dancers

beneath a moon-bright sky

the earth lifts the rose

the oak twisting and throbbing

into the air so i burrow deep

beneath the black soil a worm

gnashing rocks like prayers

until i find a darker god

and somewhere in the black clay

an old woman natters

lost in perpetual disappointment

and a death skull’s bored laugh’s

trapped in his life’s delusion

(May 7, 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)