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teaching poetry

I became a teacher by accident. In 1995, I was asked to do a one day school visit in Paterson, New Jersey. I was phoned by Susan Amsterdam, one of the co-ordinators of The Passiac Community college Theatre and Poetry project. This is not the official name, I have never remembered the official name, but Maria Mazziotti Gillan founded and runs it, Susan co-ordinates it, and it is the only program of its kind in New Jersey, insofar as it serves strictly the urban population of Paterson and brings poets to the schools for one day visits. Susan works with the librarians of the various grade schools and high schools. Many noteworthy poets such as Lorna Decervantes, Gary Soto, and Sean Thomas Dougherty have participated.

Susan has one of the most affected mid-Atlantic accents of all time, fully as affected at Marie Dressler when she used to play the put-upon society lady in Marx Brothers movies. She is marvelous. Gillan’s entire staff is amazing, but Susan is the consumate professional, in the oldest, noblest tradition–organized, poised, with a voice somewhere between Winston Churchill, Ray Milland, and God knows who else. I sometimes call the number at three in the morning, just when I need a sense of majesty. I don’t leave a message and no one is there to be disturbed by it: “Hello… This is Susan Amsterdamn.” I am the only human being who has ever gotten the otherwise impeturbable Susan to shout. I have a gift for ruffling the utterly unruffable, but we will talk about this at a later time.

At any rate, I don’t know why I received a call to do a visit. I guess they considered me a poet. I ran a series, had published work, had read in the open at Maria Gillan’s Distinguished poet’s reading. Yes, I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, so I’m urban, but I’ve never been street in the sense of having the cool. I am the anti-cool, Howdy Doody, El blanco. Yuppies from Long Island are way cooler than me. But the truth is I am arrogant–a wise ass, ballsy, without much shame, and I am a ham, and I like kids. I can talk to kids all day. They interest me. They will never pretend to like you. For that I am forever grateful. The moment a kid learns to pretend in that way, she or he is no longer a kid (usually, when they’ve learned to pretend to like you, they’re a “professional” in the worst sense–not like Susan, a woman I would go to war for). My first reaction to Susan’s voice was “This woman ain’t for real. No one sounds like that in real life. Maria made her up. (Gillan’s office is a Dickens novel–with Maria as the major character. All her staff can talk Maria speak. They know what she means even when she isn’t sure. It’s amazing.) So I met her, and she was real and had a kind heart as well as perfect and affected diction, and, every day, she was driving into the ghetto to do something good for kids who strangely enough, found her utterly affected voice, and inherrent dignity to be pleasing and comforting, just as I did. It was nice to know someone who spoke that well and was not a phony white bitch. Since then, I have played a sort of wayward Arthur to her Sir John Gilgud. (If you want to check out her voice call the center– but don’t you dare do it unless you agree not to leave a message. I’ll know and God will punish you). I think she is one of the ten rightous women of God, one of the holy forces standing between us and absolute destruction.

There’s another woman works for Maria called Arlene. Somehow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan ended up with 2 out of the 10 rightous women of God on her staff. Arlene is Armenian and once payed cash to get my car out of strorage when it had been towed from a street in Paterson. Arlene has been battling cancer for years now. Susan’s husband died, but they’re tough. Once, after a brutal break up (brutal for me, I got dumped), Arlene and Susan phoned me, without provocation, just to see how I was doing. At that time I was probably voted in Jersey as “most likely to commit suicide.” I am an opera, a sprawling mess. I admit it. Hello, I’m Joe Weil, and I am a sprawling mess. Thank God for those who are not.

So, I’m street in only one sense: if you ask me how I’m doing, and you seem to mean it, I will tell you my life story–like some lonely 80 year old neighbor (I am a lonely 80 year old neighbor). I will explain my love life, my lack thereof, my various aches and pains, the bios of my most interesting relatives, etc, etc. I will liberally extend reality or bend it to the shape of my tale, I may even tap dance, if it’s absolutely uneccessary. In short, I talk shit. While this is disastrous among middle class professionals who pretend to like you (You have done the one thing they can not abide–proffered a human exchange where none is called for), it is absolutely vital to entertaining, inspiring, and instructing kids. First law of any work with kids: “Don’t be boring. ” Boring is the job of parents and their regular teachers–to bore them all for the sake of a higher truth. My job is to offer temprary respite from boredom. I find the less kids have, the more easily entertained they tend to be. Honors students like being bored (Boredom in our culture is a sign of power and priviledge, and someone ought to do a study of boredom in relation to the class structure), and so I always cringe when teachers tell me I’m going to workshop with nothing but honors students. It isn’t that honors students are easily bored. That’s parents and teachers who kiss their little precious asses talking. It’s that honors students tend to be the “property” of certain teachers. It’s a sort of brain jock mentality, and they can be total introverts and assholes to the umpteenth degree. My favorite kids to teach are those who have been waiting for poetry all their lives, but didn’t know it: the smart kid who refuses to “work to her potential,” the wise ass who has been waiting to hear one thing on earth that doesn’t sound phony and then hears it in his own poem, those kids. I am also looking for kindness, and openess–the first criteria for whether or not a guest can be effective.

Wherever I have taught for an extended period of time, I may have bored someone. God forgive me, but the best teachers do not bore. They may terrify, insult, inspire, incite, confuse, or con the students, but they do not bore. A boring teacher is the death of learning. I am not to every student’s taste–especially for those students who need a touch of OCD and a rigid, predictable program of instruction. Hell, I would not want me as a teacher (Too much Irish chaos–the worst kind). Good, inspiring, life transforming teachers exist in every personality type, including introverted (I always preferred cool Alfred Hitchcock types with perfect lesson plans), but, in a 3 hour gig, where you do you hit and run, my style is probably best (except for those teachers who believe there is nothing worthwhile in life that hasn’t been planned down to the last syllable). I terrify the well-prepared. Hell, I terrify myself.

Anyway , I had no idea what to do, so I “talked shit” and the kids talked back and we enjoyed each other. Having read four books a week for twenty years and having memorized hundreds of poems and songs helped, but it still came out as a form of banter. I had some tough moments: once an angry kid called me “a gap toothed, no necked, red faced, bald headed white cracker,” and I wrote the phrase down on the board, and did a lesson on the two syllable put down. I was delighted by how he had said it. He was only in fifth grade, and already miserable for the rest of his life, but gifted in hate, a verbal wizard at making other people feel as bad as he did. I was truly in awe of his intelligence and saddened to the point of love by the utter damage and defiance it invoked. He couldn’t believe I was using his hatred as a lesson plan. Nor could the teacher, who hated the kid, had been the victim of his mouth, and wanted to send him to hell, but, being a coward like Hindley, let the kid run the class.

I gauged the situation. In any workshop situation in the inner city, you may have as many as four wannabe alpha apes: The teacher, the teacher’s aide, and the two or three kids who want to run the show. The teacher might be so anal, and burned out that you can’t even use the chalk, and she or he does her or his bills or study plans while you conduct your workshop. This isn’t “professional” distance. This is just bad manners. I have seen it done both in urban and suburban schools. It is the ultimate way of snubbing an unwanted guest. You are not a guest; you are a temporary intrusion at best. They go out of their way to pretend you don’t exist. Such teachers would be called “stuck ups” in my old neighborhood. Eventually, a kid or a parent would justifiably assault such a teacher. They have no place in our schools. If they think arts in the schools are a waste of time, they ought to speak up and make a fuss; otherwise, be courteous, at least. These are not always veteran teachers. By and large, they are snotty, fairly new teachers who are already smug and stupid. To treat a guest inhospitably in ancient Ireland was a crime punishable by death. Same in Italy and Greece, and in the Middle East. I think you should still be allowed to off the motherfuckers. But here, in corporate America, it is called “professionalism.” Spare me. There are two kinds of heroes: those who can fight, and those who can be generous. Sometimes they are combined. More often, they lean one way or the other. Look it up. A teacher like this can destroy hundreds of souls. I never minded nuns who hit me. I usually deserved it. I minded teachers who acted like prostitutes with a bad trick, who looked at their watches, who picked on and brutalized the same children the children picked on and brutalized. These people are scum. They destroy love. They dishonor Heaven. The best revenge is to realize how sad they must be to live with themselves 24/7.

When I first encountered such teachers, I tried to draw them in and found out they felt nothing but contempt. They were no different than this kid calling me a gap tooth, no-neck, red faced, white cracker, except that they weren’t as honest. They were just as hateful as that kid, but they would retire with pensions, and that kid would end up in jail. So I gauged the situation. This kid ran the class. I knew that. The other kids might not like him, but they obeyed him because he was smarter and meaner, more ruthless, and he spoke for their own anger, their own inner nastiness. They would abdicate the rights of hatred to him, in exchange for sitting idly by while he made sure no one learned anything except his contempt and meaness. I’m nuts enough to consider that his meaness and anger might have been useful, and if it was my school, I’d poll the kids. They could decide if he were elected teacher. I’d then put him on staff, give him a salary and benefits, with the proviso he make up an endless series of lesson plans, and fill out a ton of paper work. He’d be no better or worse than the asshole who was in front of the kids that day, but it ain’t my world, is it?

I had made a decision on the side of clever. I thought I could defuse the situation by turning his verbal insult into a lesson in rhythm and meter. This was a mistake. I hadn’t been honest about how pissed off and sad he had made me while at the same time he impressed me. His power over these kids was absolute. He was talented. I love talent even when it is aimed against me. I already felt inferior to this kid. When I first wrote his put down on the board, and started taling about syllable counts, he was shocked. I derailed him for a second, but I forgot a kid like this always has some side kick thug– aHimmler whose whole existence depends on sucking his master’s dick. This side kick threw a wet spit ball at me. It splattered on the board and the kids erupted in laughter. The teacher kept writing in her lesson planning book. So much for being one of these lame liberals who make excuses for meaness. There’s no excuse for being mean. This kid had been hurt in life, but he was an asshole, though a talented one, and he was going to ruin the day, so I said to the teacher, “What sort of teacher, sits there and acts as if a guest does not exist? You’re not doing your job, and I’m a taxpayer. Get up and take this behaviourly challenged person out of my sight. I got a job to do. I don’t need to take this.” Then I got on the phone and called the principal. I said this kid had to go and so did his best friend. The principal came up. There was the kid’s statement on the board. This kid spit on the principal.

The great “liberal” extreme is to let angry, ill-mannered children usurp the rights of other kids. I don’t believe in accomadating anger or meaness–in myself or others. I am also bone angry because of what has happened to me, but I know this anger is as much a liability and vice as it can be a virtue. I believe a person should run rough shod over others only when truly provoked. I won’t back down to anyone, but I also won’t be mean to anyone unless they are mean to me first. This is true street code. This is giving propers. Now you say this kid is only a fifth grader, but man, I know him–he’s older and sadder than Satan, and he needs massive help, and no one’s going to give it to him, especially his equally fucked up and mean hearted teacher. The kid spat on the principal, he was taken out of class along with his side kick (The teacher also should have been taken out of class), and I asked the principal if I could have an extra forty minutes with these kids since the next period was open. He said alright. I was able, eventually, to gain control, but I learned a lesson: you cannot con, compromise, or make peace with inpsired and intelligent, and sadistic hatred hell bent on denigrating you (This force shows up sometimes as a fifth grader, and sometimes as a contemptous teacher doing the lesson plan while you try to conduct a workshop). You must remove such evil from your presense, nuetralize it, or find someone who can.

Anyway, I was humbled and I learned the first sad, but pragmatic law of teaching: some kids are smarter and meaner than you are, and they don’t think you have anything to teach them, and they are probably right. You don’t, but if you want to teach at all, get them out of your class as soon as possible or be prepared to become that kid’s bitch.

Almost without exception, my experiences were good, because I was a neighborhood person talking to neighborhood kids–albeit, not the same ones I grew up with, but not that different. I enjoyed myself, something you should always try to remember as a teacher. I brought in my guitar and my harmonica or played a piano in the really old, crumbling schools that still had pianos in the classroom. I talked about my crazy relatives and then got the kids to write about theirs. They played my guitar, sang refrains, sometimes wrote poems that made them cry, that shocked them with their own beauty or truth. I had never even heard of a prompt. Honest. I would let the kids play my guitar, and when they thought I was a leprechaun, I didn’t take offence. Hell, I was short with a red beard, and I looked like one.

I learned the following rules of teaching, rules taught to me by my years as a shit talker, bar poet, and musician:

1. Don’t think your lesson plan is God. Leave some room for deviating, and for the flow of the moment. Teach in the moment, not in the system.

2. Kids want to be useful. Let them pass out the paper. Get them involved. Delegate authority–don’t cling to it. The truly pwerful give power away freely. Ask them questions. You’re not in a one day, one hour work shop to teach them poetry. You’re there to con them into thinking this poetry stuff just might be enjoyable. You’re an evangelist of the arts. Give stuff away. I gave a way books, drums, candy, once, I even gave away my guitar.

3. Teacher’s want “results” or the illusion of “constructive” work shops. Keep the joy, but learn to give the devil her or his due. Have a handy reason ready for everything you do–not for the kids, but for the teacher. Respect the teacher’s place. This is territory and many teachers, besides being control freaks, are also territorial. I sometimes bring my own paper and chalk. The less they have to do for me, the better. The less they feel their space is being violated, the better. Make them think you’re on their side.

4. Never read your own poetry until you are asked. I think it’s nice to read stuff that excites you (by others), but you aren’t the center of the universe. The kids are. You might change someone’s life. Be stupid and naive enough to believe that and realize, the first impediment to reaching someone is your own fat ass self. Get out of your own way.
5. If you are shy, use it. If you are anal, use it. If you are wild, use that, too. Anything used with good will, with true concern, can work. What does not work is contempt.
6. Know poetry well–not just the craft, but the joy. Trust that children are greedy for joy, that they are dying for lack of it. Don’t ever patronize them, even if they want you to.

Anyway, I went into my first gig with a guitar, a suit, and a purple ski cap. It was winter, but the cap was strange, and purple, and became an ice breaker. When the kids though my name was “Wild” rather than “Weil.” I didn’t correct them. I knew it was better to be “wild.” I let them play the guitar. I let them be the show. We performed the poems. Most teachers enjoyed it, and many wrote poems themselves (The best kind of teachers). After doing three of these gigs, I thought, “This is fun. I can do this.” I would work all night on the twelve to eight, take a quick shower in the locker room, put on a suit. When I first did this I showed my working class roots by wearing a three piece suit. This is how I was taught to give respect. You got dressed for weddings, funerals, and arts-in the-schools-programs. I had no idea how casual things had become in terms of school dress codes. Weirdly enough, this worked with the kids in Paterson who thought I might be a rich and famous poet because I was dressed like a funeral director.

I lived this double life for the next three years until, one day, I received an offer to work a steady gig at Arts High in Middlesex county, New Jersey. The job was only two days a week for six hours, but I could do it, as well as the Paterson gigs, and still keep my 12 to 8. I was building a rep. Maybe for the first time in my life I was doing something I loved as much as playing the piano or kissing a lover. I’d found my vocation. Like most such things, it followed the fate of my personality: I just stumbled into it while I was doing something else. It wasn’t planned. I am working class to the extent that, unlike most middle class people, I don’t think we really have all the choices we would like to believe we have. Fate enters. Grace enters. Shit happens.

So I was ready to evolve into a new life. It was the late nineties. The economy was booming. Even the American mold making industry was temporarily thriving. I had, in a sense , always been a teacher. For fifteen years, I had taught immigrants on the night shift to read and write English–just for the hell of it, because I liked them (not always, but most of the time). I had read my poetry. Many guys at work thought I was a nut job, but they were proud of me, too–especially when the Newspapers came to the shop to do a story on the “Poet as working stiff,” and I got a couple of them into the picture. I had no thought of ever leaving that world. It was a steady job. Work was always just work. I had no idea Bush and 9/11 were going to happen–that, one week after the Twin Towers went down, I would lose my job of 19 years forever. By that time, without any real effort, by the seat of my friggin pants, and certainly not the sweat of my scholarly brow, I was flying towards the sort of destiny I never dreamed of. What began with the perfect diction of Susan Amsterdam had grown into my full time occupation: free lance teacher, Dodge-Poet-In-The-Schools, Master Instructor in fiction and poetry at Middlesex County Arts High. Not even a bullshit artist like me could have made this shit up. Who said Proust doesn’t pay? Yes, I was all those things–and scared shitless, too. Without trying, without hunger or ambition, I was being forced by economic disaster, to be upwardly mobile. I had been failing to succeed all my life. I had no idea I was failing my way to the top.

Oh–my final rule of thumb: like kids, enjoy them or don’t do it because kids will kill you–and devour you–even if you love them, and especially if they love you. They have an inherrent sense of eucharist. Be sure you want to die for them. They will insist on it.

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”