These are my lessons and I want to share them.
Mrs. Mills taught me how to read.
We used the Carden method, black leatherette books.
Miss Mae Carden herself came to the grammar school one day,
driven in a limousine from New York
just to hear us recite. Mrs. Bothwell taught me handwriting
of the kind I am using right now
to make this poem. To tell the truth,
I have never loved any art more than this.
School could have ended then, forever.
But Miss Peer taught me how to worry and be afraid every morning,
sick to my stomach, throwing up at the bus stop.
Eventually I learned (among all possibilities) that it was possible
to survive having to sit behind the piano, emerging alive.
She read aloud to us. Heidi.
Because I tried to cheat on a test, Miss Costanzo taught me
public guilt and personal shame, two adjectives and two nouns,
held tight in each hand ever after,
my palms sweating on those unmelting stones,
weighing down my cheating fists.
Mrs. Wilson taught me complicity, conspiracy, and condescension
through her sanctioned harassment of Georgie the “retarded” boy.
It’s obvious to me now how she hated him.
It was an education in power and judgment,
the most exquisite unfinished lesson of my childhood:
keeping an irredeemable conscience.
The year the public library opened above the firehouse,
Mrs. Donnelly taught me kindness and I taught myself sorrow,
harbingers of lessons to come when the failures
took hold of me and stayed. I began to be a reader.
From seventh grade on, I learned many things:
confusions and falseness, the struggles of an unformed helpless identity,
a common lot with the others, the small hardships of lifelong loneliness,
unspoken conversations at the kitchen table.
And that kitchen itself, the house as real to me as this one.
I can look in through each window still, hovering outside
to see the red plaid oilcloth on the table, and around it
the formidable haunted emptiness.
I also learned to type in school, and how to work
from an outline when writing prose.
I learned the yearning that has never left me.
My father taught me to be gentle, to love, to want a woman’s voice
present in my life.
I am certain that I contributed to his loneliness.
From my father, too, I learned the meaning of standing at the rim
of infinity, for all of breathless eternity,
in thrall to possibility.
Now you pay mind:
We are born to each other every day.
We enter a room expecting a difference
and we find we must give each thing away
that we had kept to ourselves
until we feel we have nothing left. That
is called making a difference.
We write a message in front of everyone
and the chalk creates the words.
We clarify our lives by striving for an idea,
an origin for imagination, something fresh,
something new and strong,
or whatever it is we do not yet know about this dream.
We look for something we cannot remember having seen before
in ourselves, perhaps the striving for vision itself, and
this is how we are born.
We want something to live that is
not yet alive in us,
some destiny, some arrival.
It does not enter, but stands outside us, breathing
and it is not us, but it is of us.
We are bewildered and unclear and apart
until we answer the two questions
written on the board by the chalk in our own hand:
What is the dream?
Who is the dreamer?
And then, before we answer we erase.
Farewell to Students
My task has been to teach you to serve, to
help you to invent your feelings,
your fullness of care, to
show you how to invent your hearts, to
give an intention to your longing, to
persuade you to love as I love.
I was a doctor and this was my task: to place
my heart in front of you with my scalpel point
thrust into its little sections and say
this part is yours, and this also belongs
to you, take it, it’s the relic of a life I had.
I do not need it any more.
My work has been to bring
you gifts, valuable only in my own words:
a scrap of newspaper would do,
a recollection of something I saw, once,
from a moving train.
Your aspirations were my work.
And now in need of more gifts to give you
I remember searching where they were placed
in memory; I find books and give them to you:
bookmarks, my collections, seashells, a photograph
of myself when small, thinking of you.
This was my work:
to find you waiting for me,
to see you as though we had always
known we would meet here. I would not
show my fear for you, I would not speak
my care for you, I would not say my lies to you.
Calm and unafraid, I came here to give you
a new understanding of magic.
In the end I came to feel you in my heart as I could not
in the beginning. To see you go was the purest loss,
a confirmation that you had never been mine.
In the end my job was to teach your lives to begin,
to step out from the shadows of machines
into the calm emptiness of everywhere that needs
your voice, into the failures of courage,
fearless in the whispering approach
of the unknown, visionary in the dim light
that illuminates nothing unless I am there as well
to see it, to want it, invisibly, within you.