Copyright ©1996, 1997 A.D. Sullivan
When I saw the wrinkled Astrologer
When I saw the wrinkled astrologer,
when the stars and charts were placed in card before me,
when I was shown the proof of my birth, to complex
and divide, and ruin me,
when laying, I felt the astrologer where she prodded
inside my head with "oohs" and "ahs" from her clients laughing, How
alarmed I became, spooked and spawned
till clamoring to my feet I wandered off
in the rigid dry day air, and in time
I thought, and gave up on the stars.
Point of View
"In the newspapers I often read this pitiful sentence: `The people must be taught to read,' and I say to myself, what shall they read? It is education and undesirable literature, there are our enemies!"
Let's face it. In the real world there is a monopoly over truth. You see it in the street, classrooms, newspaper and texts. The Vatican and the White House own it. And the struggle to seek it will drive you crazy. You raise your hand from the back of class when you're supposed to be dozing and you're liable to lose a grade. Joseph Stalin once said "Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hand and at whom it is aimed."
Take a look in today's professors' eyes and you'll know who the target is.
And it's not always their fault. They are only human after all. It's the forms, regulations and data banks which rule the world, and those little mindless people who push buttons and sign checks, who have nothing to do with educating at all. These `administrators' hang upon the system like leeches, justifying their yearly salary with duplication of forms.
They are the people who grant or refuse tenure, shaping the direction of education with their own narrow-mindedness, bending to the political ill-wind when popular opinion shifts direction. This is not to say professors are blameless. They are still the most direct source of information most students have, assigning dubious texts, establishing political criteria such as `the life of Karl Marx' in English 101.
Tradition shapes knowledge, too. Agreed upon patterns of exposition like the MLA Style Sheet that disguise faulty thinking in proper form, making students subject to `correct' procedure and empty gestures. By the time a student has unraveled the rules of a simple paper, his class is holding it's 10th year anniversary, and he's still suffering an incomplete mark.
For the creative artist the effect is so disastrous that many leave after a few months to pursue self-education. Shakespeare, Faulkner, & Blake are but a few who rejected the T.S. Eliot school of Intellectualism in which common understanding is impossible. Even the real world has its effect on education. Beyond the foundations of high education we find political resentment. A back-to-basics ideal in which the three Rs mean: Religion, The Right, and Ruthless Capitalism. It complains about the Liberal rebellion being injected into our youth by Left Wing socialistic professors. As if the university was anything but a factory reproducing parts for the great Capitalist machine outside, destroying creativity and original thought as quickly as it can uncover it. More poets are ruined by education than lack of it. Psychological and Analytic thought have taken the place of shamanism. Freud and Watson and Skinner have become the Abraham, Christ and Muhammad of the new age. If all this has a conspiratorial tang to it, welcome to the club. Paranoia is the current rage. If you aren't on one side of the equation or the other you're nowhere. The scientific method is as faulty as the Christian myth because it leaves human creativity out of the picture. Reality replaces fairness as the criteria of wealth and justice. Right, Left, we are given limited choices in our educational process and are expected to believe that's all there is. Knowledge has been homogenized with everything unacceptable to either side tossed out with the cream. In this era of rising Ronald Reaganism, it is appropriate to quote Hitler: "Universal education is the most corroding and disintegrating poison that Liberalism has ever invented for its own destruction."
I never saw a cat like that with frills and pins in his fur scratching his ear with the gentlest scratch, puzzling the things that he's heard. "Never heard of Wasteland," he'll tell you with a competent yawn, or scratch his ear for something to do, or roll in his neighbor's lawn "Ash Wednesday's a day the Catholics revere," he says as he washes his paw, then flicks a few licks behind his ear, and turns to work on his jaw. "A poem," he says, "should be what it is. Who cares if it's long or it's short. What I can't stand is that terrible biz `Let us go, you and I...' and that sort! "Another lick should do the trick," he says with his paw on a poem. "It's all academic and that's the kick which gets your mouth all-a-foam. "Why should you look in the back of the book to find what the drivel's about? A poem should be simple, caught in a look, the rest you can throw the hell out!"
They're Not Stupid
I'm not sure I understand either. I wanted to be better than the teachers I had in school, a loving, understanding teacher to whom kids could turn. I thought I was when I started school last month. Peggy Demming was going to change the world the way Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young said twenty years ago: teach the children.
Part of the problem were the other teachers who smiled and sadly shook their heads the minute they heard I was new.
"You're going to have a hard time with that class," Mr. Landers said. "They're cursed."
"But they're only in the third grade," I insisted.
"That's more than enough time for them to learn the tricks. Watch out! They'll test you."
"No, no," I assured him, sensing rather the teacher testing me. I'd worked all sorts of jobs through college and each had its own ritual of initiation, stories with which they frightened new-comers as a matter of testing their mettle. "I'll be fine. Really."
Indeed, coming into the classroom, it was almost too good – the rows of straightened desks and silent faces staring up at me. They seemed to have the same awe of me as I did of them.
Why not? It was a unique experience for both of us. They couldn't have had too many teachers fresh from the mill -- not after only three years of school. I figured this was too my advantage leaving them on less than solid ground.
They were quiet and orderly, even through the ritual of roll which had always been a source of problems when I was their age. It was odd. I felt as if I was one of them, as if the teacher was going to come in and catch me in my imitation of her -- I had heard the same rhetoric of who was boss and what we were going to learn my whole schooling career and I vowed to be different, to be the kind of teacher these students could trust -- maybe not quite a pal, but a confidant. I didn't want them hating me the way I'd hated my teachers.
The peace and tranquillity lasted about a week, then all hell broke loose. I still don't understand how it started or who started it, but when it came, it spread through the class with the irresistible effect of a forest fire.
Maybe later when it is clearer to me I well be able to categorize the problems. At the time it hit me like a mass of crying, pouting and defiance to whom no specific person could be blamed -- all had mingled into a single, terrible, throbbing nerve which I lacked talent or ability to soothe. I talked to them. But even my lessons seemed unable to break through the blank stares. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a highly regarded elementary school in a solidly suburban part of the country. These kids did indeed speak English despite their inability to articulate it.
I know I should have gone to the principal or another teacher for help. But I had been so certain of myself earlier that I would have looked like a fool to them. I didn't want to hear their laughter and I didn't go through five years of college to rely on someone else. If I couldn't handle these kids now, by myself, how would I handle them later? I had the vague notion of earning their respect.
That was the real joke -- the terrible and ironic joke all young teachers must face when they are finally confronted with their career. These kids never really come to respect you.
But I tried-- and with the same loving hand I took them aside, one by one, often using up more of my own time than was good for my lessons, staying often after school. I pried and poked, coaxed and argued.
But the madness continued, no sooner abated in one child then let loose in a half dozen others. Each child seemed like a piece of a large unorganized jigsaw puzzle, each not quite able to fit the picture of a class.
It was Mrs. Canton, the school principal, who put me straight -- well, not exactly -- telling me she'd been over my lesson plans and I had fallen way behind where I should have been.
"Is there a problem?" she asked.
I guess I was already at the breaking point because I cried on her shoulder like one of her students, and she was the teacher I'd always wanted.
"Look, it's not your fault," Mrs. Canton said. "They're all little monsters at this stage of life. Half our job is to teach them out to fit in with an organized society."
"I know! I know! But they're driving me crazy!"
"Dear, they're not stupid. They're inexperienced and untrained, but they have a natural cleverness which insists they maintain their individuality. They're still living in the jungle. It's our job to bring them out of that jungle. It's not easy and you're not going to do it by believing their intentions are basically good. They are driving you crazy because they want to drive you crazy."
"No, no! They can't be as bad as that!" I insisted, pushing myself away from the woman, wondering how she could still teach with an attitude so negative.
She only sighed and shook her head. "All right, have it your way. But you're not going to make it in this school until you find some way to control them. And there are state requirements to be met. You have to keep up."
Maybe I would have been doomed to some other profession if things had stayed like that -- the romantic vision of teaching letting them roll over me. But an accident in the hall allowed me to come up behind one of my students. She was talking to a student from another class.
"Oh sure we got it easy," the little girl was saying. "Our teacher is so mixed up she doesn't even give us homework."
She never saw me. But her face stayed in my mind the whole night, a pale impish little face that turned grotesque and evilt over the hours since I'd heard her words, a plotting serpent in the perfect garden. It surprised me the next day when I saw her face and she had no horns.
Perhaps they sensed the change as they sat down. Something in the air was different. Maybe it was me, sitting silent and still behind my desk (rather than running around in my previous crazy pattern) waiting for them to come to order.
They did -- staring at me, their own conversations faltering so that when I spoke, all listened.
"Things are going to be different around here," I said, in a voice so hard and efficient that I swear even now it was one of my old teachers speaking, not me.
Letter in your Mailbox
Here is this letter from the world
insistently sent to me,
layer after layer of complex folds
which it must make me see
The message is one of ill content
and shackles holding me,
"for love of world, sweet countrymen,
and things I cannot see.
Walking, the corns and cracks crumble into pain, the old tracks skip bye, the wooden slats and metal broken by rain. Cassidy used to count them, the cross pieces, as they stretched out for miles, An old body, bleeding rust from between its fingers and toes. spoThe trees creep in, poison Oak and maple with their red leave falling to cover the gravel The stones stick through the soles that the miles wear thin, It is hard crossing country like this, when there is nothing but tracks, cracks and corns under foot.
Spoon, dug thin into the thick of a nickel, in the warm of porridge stinking, how terrible to touch, to dig into the muck and still, eat without thinking!
She liked them like that: In neat little rows. Legs straight! Hands folded. Eyes down
She liked to see how long they could stay still. Unmoving. Itching without relief. Near summer it got worse. Twitching for the outdoors.
"Don't move," she says and squeaks the chalk on the black board. New chalk. Scratching out education. Shakespeare. Milton. Yeats. What did they know of thought? She had to teach them as one taught a dog.
"Charlie! You listen! Get away from the window and sit!"
They could smell summer as it crept through the cracks in the walls. Summer crawling up and licking their hands. She despised it. She saw only what it did to her neat little rows.
"Charlie," She says. "I told you to sit!"
He sits with his long, doggish look. Sharp. As if she had struck him. How often she had felt the urge. Striking a child. It hurt to watch him sit. Moody as an old desk top. Groaning as he moved up and down. How often? He sits out of line, too.
"Teacher! Teacher!" he says, grinning. Missing teeth. Yellowed skin from worn out black-eye. He says it was a baseball. But it is Summer, she thinks and inspects the rows. Must learn mathematics today. Must learn to count. To figure. To love. She watches them bend. Notebooks open. Faces closed. Summer's too close. It warms the room like a kettle. Damned summer. She sits and looks for new chalk to squeak across the board. Must teach them manners. Must carry the light. In their eyes is darkness. The gap of ignorance. How often she angers. How often she is ready to break.
"No, Children!" she shouts. Pencils up like a yellow forest. Each face grins. Grimly. She will have no talking. No utterance. No sound. Sound is a sin. Sound is the devil. Summer crawls up the sill and beneath the shade. How often she tries to crush it like a bug.
He turns forward. The stones gone from his eyes. Two holes. Empty sockets. Black holes gorged into his face by her shout.
"Teacher! Teacher!" he says.
She is afraid of him. She sees the crooked row around him. Straighten that chair! she says, trying to ignore the eyes. Teacher! Teacher!
She is from the city. Neat buildings. Summer is hot metal and bright glass. She does not see the stalks that climb the fence. That crawl along the window. That burn their eyes. Summer. City. These are animals running. The boy is dark, seated by the window. She asks a question. He replied softly. Uncertain.
No, get it right! She screeches louder than that chalk. Ignorance! He will not learn. She will teach him. She scratches the answers on the board. Engraving them in him. Row after row recites. Year after year. How many years since she has learned the same? Religious school! Religion of her father. They stare at her, not the board. They fear her.
This is the answer, Charlie, she says, wishing she could beat the child. His eyes burn her with their emptiness. With summer. His eyes suck at her conscience like two mouths.
How she wishes she could close those eyes. A penny on each. Her two cents.
How she wishes she was back in the city with bright lights and no corn stalks. No summer growing on her shoulders. No need to teach these holey-eyed children about rows. Must have them straight. Must learn the rules. For her, it was college and father. Milton. Yeats. Shakespeare. She wishes she could teach them. Beat them. Hurt them. Straighten those rows.
His mother is a scarecrow hanging laundry on the line. The wind flaps the end of the sheets. Makes them look like clouds. He runs like an animal. Back and forth. Back and forth. She hates him. Hates his mother. See him as a wild beast. See him flirting with the edges of summer. Dirty hands. Empty eyes. No Milton, Yeats or Shakespeare. Just dust rising from his feet. His mother stands. A shadow. Sleeves tattered. How she hates them both.
She wants to tell mother about the rows which run up and down her class. Row after row. Neat lines. With a budge where the boy sits. He invites summer into her class.
Summer crawls over the grass. Glittering. He laughs. Sometimes plays. Singing. But not near her. There is silence in her class. Yet, she can hear the singing coming out of him. Even in the silence. She wants to tell mother about the songs that fill the silence. His songs. His summer.
He runs up along the bank near the river. Flirting with the water. His feet plop. Plop, plop! Plop, plop! Gathering mud. Walking on water. She despises his movement. Child of ignorance. Must have rows, she explains to mother. Clipping the laundry up. The sheets billow like clouds. The child runs through them. Singing. Dancing. Empty eyes. He does not quote Shakespeare. But falls! Tumbles over his own mud-caked feet and cries.
Teacher! Teacher! Pain in his voice. Mother ignores him. Teacher cannot. She watches the summer rush red from his knee. Dribbling down his leg. He covers the wound with muddy hands. No sign of blood. She shivers.
I must talk with you, she says. Mother listens. Listens like a scarecrow listens. To the chatter of the crows pecking at the corn. But there is no more corn. She sees the emptiness in the boys eyes and pecks at that. At the thick glass that covers them. At the reflections of summer.
Mother stops clipping. Eyes hollow, too. Face wrinkled. Clothing flutters on the line, torn and tattered. Patterns bright in the sun. Daises. No one will listen. The boy charges under the sheet. A little bull. Teacher imagines him in pain again. Eyes filled with tears.
Rows, she says. We must have rows.
She walks along the dirt road home. The sun is up. Burning. Crawling after her like a stalking animal. She is afraid. She hears the cry of wolves in the distance. She sees the boy crawling among them. Plotting. Bloody-kneed. Crying. She hears her father speak of wisdom. Of Milton, Shakespeare and Yeats. Telling her. Teaching her. Over and over in straight rows. No one learns. Word after word. Guarded. Knowledge is the treasure held by a dragon. Even Beowulf fails. She is the dragon. Who is the boy? She shivers. Dark descends. She wishes she was with her father. Home. Fire. Warmth. There is no warmth in those empty eyes. Only ignorance. She must fill them. Rows neat. Squeaky chalk. She must teach them the truth. Darkness falls on the road. A poor Samaritan. She must show them the light.
Rows, we must have rows. Summer crawls up the walls of the room. Rustle. Bustle. She cannot instruct them. Sit down, Charlie. Behave. I will not teach with this noise. He sits. His empty eyes devour her. Come here, she says in rage. Fear, too. Her hands shake as she removes the ruler from the desk. Hold your hands out. You know why you're getting this? Rows, she says. Must have rows. He does not whimper. Not like the fall in the yard. She is disappointed. He sits. Quietly. Like a puppy. His eyes forward until she looks away. Squeaks chalk on board.
Charlie, she shouts! He rises. Holds his hands out. Empty eyes angry. You're mother would not like this, she says. Watches him shrug. Summer creeping in. Up the wall. Over the sill. Shinning on his face like a lantern. The class shuffles. The rows are not neat. Father would scold her. This is not like Milton. The lines are too ragged. Straighten those rows, she says. Charlie holds out his hands. She is tempted. She wonders what it would be like to really beat him. She shivers. Summer crawls up her skirt and she is frightened.
There is silence in the kitchen. Mother is sewing. Needle rising and falling, pushing through tattered fabric. Charlie sits. Red-faced. Eyeing her in surprise. Teacher is angry. Wants to touch him. Wants to stop the summer in his eyes.
The boy must be punished, she says. Mother sews. The boy's father comes and goes like a stranger. Nodding. But not understanding. It is hard to understand when you don't sit still.
She sees herself in the mirror. Bunned-back hair. Sad heavy cheeks. She has not always been this way. Sad. Her father calls her pretty. She is not pretty. She is sad. Sad like a broken lily with petals pulled. Rows neat. Her father loves her. But she is fond of pretty things. Neat things. But nothing raw. She is afraid of animals. They do not reason. No Milton, Shakespeare or Yeats. She sees the water outside the door. A round pool christened with mud from the boy's father's boots. Cracking the reflections. The house. The light from the kitchen. What do you want, she asks, looking at mother. The boy grins. He is full of summer. Ready to leap. Teacher! Teacher!
Mother nods. There is no hope here. The child is empty. She cannot teach him. she cannot teach parent of the house that houses him: the sewing mother, the nodding father. The ignorance.
She rises. She goes. Like a bad seed mixing with good. Landing, growing, rising up to choke the good. Rows neat, she thinks as she looks to the fields of plowed earth. The mule sputters near the door. The harness still clings to its gray, scarred back. It has been beaten. It eats from the troth, sputtering. She goes. They cannot be taught.
In the night, summer comes like a storm. Swelling up in the boy's head. The heat rises. The wind ceases. There is a silence over the fields. Even the crows have ceased their pecking. There is little corn now. Just the seeds laid to earth. Just the seed. No one sees them grow till they sprout up from the earth, green and vital. No one hears their whispering as they lunge through the loose loam towards light. Craving light. Needing summer to lift them. They grow in rows. One line after another into eternity.
Whenever Waldo Wonder came around
we kids on the school steps laughed,
he was a bum from the other side of town,
Dirty, ragged, but cleverly fat.
And he was always on parade,
and always loud when he spoke,
but staggered and stuttered whenever he said:
"Good day to ya, lads! Gotta smoke?"
And he was poor, yes, poorer than a pig,
and disgustingly sloppy, had a big red face,
in ruin, we thought we saw him swig
on a bottle he carried every place.
So on we lounged, waiting for the night,
ate our burgers and drank our beer,
And Waldo Wonder cried at his plight
when we dumped his drunk body off the pier.
Williams Carlos Williams
All the simple things of the retiring and the inspiring are left undone: the solid earth move roughly a-top the continental shelf; Thus, having devoured itself in debris, it allows itself to rise, rebuild, and reinvest in the solar system wise are those who learn from their mistakes.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307