Though I have only taught college and never high school, I have often thought of the years I spent in contact with junior high (middle school) and high school teachers, and I remember how devoted some of them were to their jobs, and how big the challenges sometimes were. This poem, though, goes out to all teachers, and I hope as well to their audiences.
The Rookie "Now folks, I want you to reach down deep inside for this one," says the well-meaning, who only missed professorial degree by two years, And who now musters her high school forces to face English and American literature. Her soldiers, however, armed only with adoration in some cases, disrespect in others, and indifference for the rest, all laugh alike When Tucker Boyle lets out a deep belch, And incants, aloud, to no one and all, "That was from deep down; honest!" She allows them their laugh, being enlightened rather than professional And thereby the despair of her older colleagues. "You've got to control your students!" they say. "They have to learn respect; God knows, they don't learn it at home." She only laughs lightly. She doesn't want them to be afraid of her, she says. "But they don't look up to you either!" insists the most senior of her fellows. She smiles and says nothing. They little guess how the jibes and jests of Tucker Boyle and Co. have frayed her nerves and loosened her sinews, even, As she stays in nights to plan her deep campaigns Instead of going out for her usual run. Determined that Tucker, of whom her deepest reproach is to call him primly "Mr. Boyle," as if meeting him at a church soirée, where he would never be-- Determined that he will read Walt Whitman and cease To make lewd noises about the other, real soldiers and Walt, When he understands the biographical details clearly (That a miracle in itself, given his obtuseness!)-- She recites, she pounds the desk, she shows them passion. They, for whom the word "passion" means only sex from True Romance and Penthouse magazines scarfed from their mothers and fathers. They eye her doubtfully, uncomprehending: Can she be going the way of the Social Studies teacher a year or two ago, Who blamed them, and blasphemed their parents' God, and then blew her brains out with an old family shotgun thought to be unloaded? Even Tucker Boyle is silent; though he grins, and touches his finger to his forehead: she won't be here long. How funny fate is, sometimes! How apt the measures meted out, To those who see them clearly, yet how overdone, how harsh it seems to her now-- For Tucker Boyle, tired of poetry, Joined the Marines, bulked up, Played his way through a few minor battles, With honors and all that, And then came home in a body bag. And she? Of all the few who went to his funeral, She alone wept streaming tears, Tears that his parents, shy people afraid of their son's proclivities to harass, Feared must be about something betwixt her and him. But wasn't she one of his teachers? Didn't she threaten to flunk him, his last semester, Relenting to a "D+" when the Marines were mentioned? Later, the tears that she cried were at least partly for herself, Or even mainly for herself, and not him: For who can tell who Tucker Boyle might have been If she could have made Walt Whitman live for him? ©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/18/17
Nota bene: This poem is not meant to deny the feelings of those who feel that it’s an honor to die for one’s country (or as it is put classically, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”–“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s homeland.”) Rather, it is meant as a comment upon the senselessness and waste of war in general, though it may oftentimes be deemed necessary in order for a country to survive with its freedoms intact. In this connection, Walt Whitman is a key figure in this poem.