Let’s not be silly.
Of course I care who you pick.
That’s why I don’t ask.
All these cross-aisle vows.
Threatened lay-offs should Mitt lose.
Oh, ethics shmethics.
Cast your jaded vote.
Supersedes our doubt.
I am Beth Landau
And I approve these haiku.
(I had to do it.)
The high school is crawling with teachers these days. We plan and prep, pile and stack. We shove desks in circles. Are they better in rows or in a U? We look for the arrangement that will capture what we feel right now, that “it’s going to be a great year” spirit that dissipates so quickly when bells begin to punctuate our lives.
We’ve had time to decompress, to let the cacophony of the classroom fade into cicada lullabies and crashing waves that remind us that classrooms and projects, grades and research papers are transient concerns when viewed from a proper perspective. And just as we let ourselves relax into the rhythms of the world, a new school year beckons.
Slowly, we ease ourselves back, visit our ghostly classrooms, open blinds, unpack books, and throw out things that seemed crucial in June. Some of us adjust with site visits first, filled mostly with greetings and hugs and how-was-your-summer exchanges. Then it’s back to our classrooms; there’s work to be done.
If I arrange my desks in rows, will that ensure order? If I arrange them in a U will it encourage constructive conversation?
I take down last year’s teaching tenets, developed last September by each class after thinking deeply about their beliefs about learning. “Students learn better when they choose their own groups,” they wrote, but did they? I know only that I held up my end of the deal, and I am leaving room for this year’s lists.
I hang up advice posters for this year’s freshmen, developed in June by each outgoing freshman class. “Mrs. Landau don’t play,” they wrote, and, “Stay out of the breezeway.” They are from experience, from the heart and genuine. Colorful and laminated, the posters pop as I push pins through.
I look at rosters, hopeful pictures of incoming freshmen whose stories I do not know, whose disciplinary records aren’t my concern. They present themselves with forced yearbook smiles, heads turned so slightly. They will show themselves differently on the first day of school. New haircuts, new wardrobes, and fewer smiles, their bodies restless with anticipation, perceived judgment, and the sneaking suspicion that, new building or not, this is looking like more of the same.
If I arrange my desks in rows, will they feel comforted and assured that the order of things has not changed? If I arrange my desks in a U, will they feel ownership and recognize this invitation to participate?
I’m still moving desks, stopping often to survey my classroom, to envision it filled with people I do not know, to see if it will sustain a balance of control and freedom. So far, I’ve settled on the U, content to make myself part of the circle.
Throughout the building, teachers plan and prep, pile and stack as summer hums to a close around us. Though we may not admit it, we are aiming for a perfect first day that will lead us to a perfect year. One we’ll be proud of in June. Like the parallel play of toddlers, we move in tandem, alone but together in our desperate dance of hope.
I’d be honored if you’d check out my second poem to be published on Zouch Magazine: http://zouchmagazine.com/matryoska/
If you like it, please share it!
Self-made deadlines are funny, aren’t they?
I’m always a bit behind my own deadlines. As I rang in 1990, for instance, my friend and I decided that 1990 would the year. The year things would happen. We’d figure it all out. We’d our acheive goals. We’d find love. True love. Yeah, man. It was going to happen.
1990 wasn’t the year. Not at all. Not for either of us.
It turned out 1991 was the year. Nothing major happened, and I didn’t figure it all out. I did, however, achieve a goal (straight As in college), and I found love. True love. January 2011 was the 20th anniversary of our first kiss. I gave my husband another one to mark the occasion. Two decades of love is something to celebrate.
So maybe when I celebrated my 40th birthday in September and silently noted that I’d missed my deadline, I should have told myself to cheer up, as my arbitrary deadlines are often a bit elastic.
A new poem of mine, Fury, went live on Zouch Magazine today. This is the first time that my work has been published with a byline (other than newsletters, other byline-free work, and my own blog), and though it didn’t happen before I turned 40, it happened, which is really the point, anyway.
Please check it out at Zouch Magazine (http://zouchmagazine.com/poetry-fury/), and if you like it, like it, share it, and get the word out that 40 isn’t the end, it’s a beginning for this girl.
Here’s another poem in the series I’m writing about my childhood home. Actually, it seems to be developing into a series about my childhood, though everything is linked to that awesome blue split-level.
It’s still hugely cathartic. This one turned a sad little weight into a victory for me. It’s still in progress, but here is goes:
I Sat on the Deck Railing
I sat on the deck railing before school that spring morning.
The air felt like it was not there, just
Scents of new grass and possibility,
Sun on my skin.
Lingering on my way to school, noticing my breath, I
Shocked myself with an urge to walk past Wilson School and
Into the day. No rule-breaker at 10, I
Let that drift through my mind like a cloud.
The cool darkness of my school’s
Cavernous foyer, vast and formal,
Steep stone staircases lined each wall,
Another wider, shallow one straight ahead.
It was not beautiful to me then, while
Spring beckoned through wide wooden doors, and I
Grieved that I could not grasp that perfect morning.
Yet here it is in my head at 40,
Tactile snippets from my backyard, my slow trek,
The plunge from the sensuous morning into the cinder-block
Reality of school.
Where is everyone else?
At home my three brothers,
My mother must have scrambled about.
Gangs of kids surely lined the sidewalks en route to school.
Voices undoubtedly echoed riotously off foyer walls, but
They are gone.
Three decades later, I stop grieving and find
I’ve won. I’ve kept only the gist,
The perfection of that spring morning:
Weightless air, scents of a world reborn,
Serenity of a solitary moment in my old backyard.
Maybe I’m a bad mother,
But when the door slams and
You’re on the other side of it,
My heart does not break.
The jarring bang and rush of your explosive exit
Spawns a fear that reaches into my gut,
Grabs a fist full of viscera and twists.
Fetid yellowed claws reach up to pierce tender membranes,
And my breath escapes in a pathetic whine,
But my heart does not break.
Now I have two choices.
I can chase you. Scramble frantically to
Find you and then beg and cajole, give in,
Go back on the punishment that prompted your escape.
Forfeit all future influence.
Or I can trust and wait for you. Bide my time
Until you get cold or bored or find you’ve got
No refuge out there in suburbia.
Trust and wait while you
Stomp through the neighborhood,
Enraged at my lack of generosity,
My unwillingness meet you half way.
Trust and wait for you to
Realize that the loss of your laptop for a week
Isn’t worth a night on the streets so
You should come back to me.
Though the fear clamps down harder
And I struggle for breath,
My heart still guides me,
So I will trust,
And I will wait here in the dark
With my intact heart
Until we are on the same side of the door again.
I’ve been working on a series of poems about memories tied to the house I grew up in. Although I haven’t lived there since I was eighteen, I still inhabit that blue split-level in my dreams. The series is my way of reclaiming it. That and Google Earth. I took a virtual walk from my old house to my school the other day. It made me miss it even more.
I miss our kitchen
With its back staircase and hideous patriotic linoleum.
I miss the double wall oven
And the window over the sink,
The one my mother leaned out to scold me when
I banged the porch swing too hard.
I miss the bottom cabinets and
The possibility of a delicious
Something way in the back that my
Brothers hadn’t found yet.
I miss the yellow wall phone with its
Long tangled cord, dangling
That phone two stories
Over the bannister in the hall,
The cord twisting and lengthening.
I miss the table where I spilled
Grape juice on my stuffed mouse’s nose.
Choked down salmon croquettes.
We sat in fixed seats each night.
Was that on purpose?
Mostly, I miss the closet by the table,
Half way up the wall,
Wide and deep with
White louvre doors.
The coffee urn for company was there.
A fondue pot I recall using once.
Shadowy, yellowed boxes.
The odors of grease and coffee grinds.
The best Hide and Seek spot.
Brothers, did you know?
I could hide in there for hours,
Fold my legs, duck my head,
Pull a battered box beside me and
Make myself so small. I could
Watch you peer in and not see me.
The ruckus of the house was only slightly muffled there,
And long after you gave up, slammed outside to
Find friends and other mischief,
It was safe and dark behind the coffee urn.
Tell your friends I
Said you can’t go
Think you’re too young
Don’t care what you want
Consider it dangerous
Have threatened to ground you
Just don’t get it
Will totally freak.
Tell them I’m
Out of touch
Too involved in your life
Tell them whatever it takes to save face, just don’t
Catch a ride with drunk kids
Be swayed by deceitful people
Let anyone hurt you
Make babies too soon
Exploit your body
Surrender your voice
I’ll carry the burden of unpopularity if it
Lets me cling to desperate fallacies:
Of course it is futile.
The world will claim you eventually.
But for now,
While I have the luxury of believing
I can save you,
For now, blame me.
I wrote a lot of poetry when I was young. I’d scribble something in a spiral notebook during homeroom, and then I’d tweak it for the rest of the school day. Cross out lines here in history. Substitute a word there in math. By the three o’clock bell, I’d have a tidy little poem. There was something about picking out just the right words to capture some little truth that felt right to me.
In jr. high I won some contest (I have no idea what it was… my evil English teacher submitted one of my poems without my say so), and I submitted a few to my school’s literary magazine. The feedback I received was positive (and I’m including the incident when someone plagiarized one of my poems–it’s got to be a form of flattery, no?), and I was feeling pretty good about poetry. That all changed when I became a writing major in college.
In college I learned, with time and diligent practice, just how much my poetry sucked. I could get three poems going in a week on my own, but when it came to specific assignments in specific poetic forms, I couldn’t find my voice.
My poetry wasn’t as horrifying as my one attempt at children’s literature (apparently, a four year old protagonist who resigns himself to a serious lack of attention from his long-suffering but cold mother is “too dark” for children’s lit), but it wasn’t pretty, either. The language was stilted. The poems would meet the assignment requirements without capturing anything poignant or real. Disheartened, I walked away from poetry.
For the last couple of years, however, my interest in poetry seems to have crept back in. I credit our school’s participation in the Poetry Out Loud competition somewhat. To get my students excited about reciting poetry, I’ve shown them footage from previous competitions and other examples of spoken word poetry, and had them write their own poems, assignments I always attempt myself… it seems fair.
While the exposure to poetry has hooked only a handful of students (and by that I mean that they still maintain an interest in poetry outside the classroom), it’s most certainly sunk its hooks in me. I moved from just reading and watching spoken word performances to writing my own again, even memorizing a couple of them, and it feels just like it did years ago: real. It’s like my poetic pilot light’s been re-lit.
Of course, I still suspect that while my poetry resonates with me, it isn’t necessarily good in any objective sense, so I’ve kept my poems mostly to myself. Imagine my shock, then, when the poem I hesitantly posted last month (“It’s Painful to Watch You Sometimes“) got more hits and more praise than anything else I’ve posted. The same happened with “There is Risk Here.” I look at my blog stats and just giggle. Apparently the little bits of truth I try to encapsulate in my poems resonate a bit with others, too. It’s been an unexpected and joyful detour in my writing journey.
The focus and bulk of my writing is still prose (mostly creative nonfiction with a little short fiction thrown in) but it feels good to be friends with poetry again. So while it feels right, I’m going to keep this poetry thing going for a while. I hope my readers like it. I know I do, and this time I’m not letting anyone talk me out of it.
The persistent supervision of every
Who, what, when, and where in my life
Is not akin to a juggler keeping balls in the air.
The students I govern each day,
They are the matter I endeavor to keep aloft.
They roll, retrievable.
Mine are not always resilient.
If anything, I am a juggler of eggs.
I observe, anticipate, propel and protect,
Try to stay focused,
Fight the unrelenting urge to
Stop. Block out the ceaseless swish and whirl.
Perhaps keep one eye open,
Hold my breath against the sickening crack of
Fragile shell on unyielding ground.
I listen hard, jolt and re-jolt myself out of derelict reverie,
And try to keep those fragile eggs from falling on my watch.
I am not so vain to think that they are raw
And any sloppy toss, any clumsy catch
Will end in catastrophic crunch and ooze.
But when they’re hurtling past my face,
It’s tough to tell which would sustain the impact
Should I let my mind drift,
Miss my mark and lose my grasp,
And which are already cracked from
Some previous lapse of attention
And vulnerable to life’s unapologetic solidity.
The students I govern every day.
Don’t insult us with playful imagery,
A juggler keeping balls in the air.
They roll, retrievable.
Mine are not always resilient.
I am a juggler of eggs.
There is risk here.
– Beth Silverman Landau, 2011
It’s painful to watch you sometimes,
Muzzled by hormones and contrived, impossible images
That teach you to shine by conforming and hiding your light.
Your minds whirl while you wonder what they think
In the halls, your heels click,
Arms wrap around tummies in too tight jeans.
Your eyes dart wildly as you propel yourself within the throng,
Ungainly and uncomfortable,
Seeking attention and approval, and pushing your power
Deep inside a contradictory shell of self-consciousness.
So rigid you cannot escape it.
So fragile that you are crushed by any perceived slight.
My job is to teach you to think and to write,
To know yourself,
To share yourself,
To speak with the authority of someone who deserves to be heard.
But I remember this constrictive tunnel vision,
This cold weight in my belly,
This uneasy electrical charge in my chest,
And sometimes I have to just look away.
– Beth Silverman Landau, 2010