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1983-2015
tearing the rag off the bush again
The Boys and Emily Dickinson PDF E-mail

"Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me…."


Waves of raucous laughter, “Fuck! Did you see that shut-out at lunch?”

“Shit yeah!”

It is every public school teacher’s onus that the system serves the dual purposes of education and free day-care, but what wonderfully awful juxtapositions this affords, as on the Friday before a full moon weekend when I had scheduled my Emily Dickinson video. The audiences were periods four and five, alike only in their average age of 17. The periods differ in that period four, before lunch, is controlled by several literate girls, fascinated by Dickinson and not ashamed to say so, while period five is under the spell of four Russian boys, very much in the tradition of Aykroyd and Martin's “Wild and Crazy Guys.”

The video is quite well done, with lovely period music, beautiful images of home and country, and, of course, much somber recitation of Dickinson’s poetry. All you 60 year old Dickinson loving guys out there (and I know our numbers are mighty!) will appreciate the understated joy I felt in the rare period four setting, quietly catching up on my work against a background of “Moonlight Sonata” and lines like

"I cannot live with you-
It would be Life-
And Life is over there-
Behind the Shelf."

while boys dozed and girls in black leather jackets with silver studs, over T-shirts with audacious sayings, and knit gloves that showed knuckles, and ragged jeans manufactured that way, and pierced noses and lips, and spikey hair, and little make-up or lots of make-up, watched and listened raptly, their silence as much music to my ears as the sonorous soundtrack.

But enough of this. My real theme is period 5. Charging into the classroom five minutes late, overcome with the excitement of a scarfed down lunch punctuated by shoves and obscene jokes, followed by a sweaty basketball game, comes Sergei and his crew. Pushing, shoving, leaping high to touch the acoustic tiles of the ceiling.

“Hi Mr. Lasken!,” cries Sergei, his happy face beguiling and tricky, yet filled with something that can only be described as “not evil.”

“Hi Sergei,” I respond, my spirits sinking, all thoughts of the tough-girl poets vanishing at the prospect of the farce to come.

“Take your seats, everyone. Quiet down.”

This is not what I would call a bad class. In fact, I’m quite fond of period 5. There are a lot of brains here, boy brains- clever and wily, funny, but not what we in the business call “academic.” These guys will be hustling bucks and women in the wide open world. They don’t need a nutty spinster and her poems.

“What movie are we going to see, Mr. Lasken?”
"I want to see 'King Kong'."
“That’s not on video, dumb-ass!”

I pass out the worksheets, thoughtfully provided by the video company. They ask simple questions about the program, e.g. "How many poems did Dickinson write in her lifetime?" Even the kids who don’t respond to a video’s contents do respond to these worksheets, like bingo players searching a grid for life’s meanings. The video begins.

"I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-
The Stillness in the Room"

Furious whispering, the words “fucking” and “ass hole” clearly audible from twenty feet away.

"And then the Windows failed-and then
I could not see to see-"

In a slow boil I storm across the room, apprehend the startled Sergei ("Mr. Lasken, what did I do?") and seat him close to my desk, where he sulks in wounded boredom.

"This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond-"

A projectile flies through the air, hitting the heretofore quiescent Jose. My eyes dart about, looking for blame. There is no way to determine who threw the object. I hear the unmistakeable faint screech of rock music from someone’s I-Pod.

"Invisible, as Music-
But positive, as Sound-"

An involuntary fantasy erupts in my mind that I scream out “Slant rhyme!”, then rush at Alexei, grab his arm and yell “That was a slant rhyme, you dimwit!” but 23 years in the classroom have taught me some restraint.

I’m looking at the clock as often as the kids are. A bad sign. What would they say in Sacramento, where the 11th grade Standards are ensconced? I’m not being dismissive; I helped write the damn things, and I serve on committees to review the Standards Tests. We’re proud of our work. Here’s a sample:

"3.0 Literacry Repsonse and Analysis, Sub-heading Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text, 3.4,

Analyze ways in which poets use imagery, personification, figures of speech, and sounds to evoke readers’ emotions."

Well, I’m doing my best, but 23 years in the classroom have also given me the ability to read minds, and as I gaze at the back of Sergei’s head, while he stares into the infinity of his desk-top, I am privy to these thoughts: "I want to fix a car engine and get overpaid, drink a beer, and have sex, in that order."

The moment of completion approaches. We hear the P.E. dress bell, heralding five minutes to dismissal. The credits roll on the screen. Kids bolt up from their seats, congregate at the doors.

I would not paint-a picture-
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell-delicious-on-
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare-celestial-stir
Evokes so sweet a Torment-
Such sumptuous-Despair-

“Mr. Lasken,” chirps Alexei, “I can’t stand that crazy old bat!”

“Yeah,” affirms Sergei, “She’s fucking nuts! Sorry Mr. Lasken!”

“Let’s not study her any more!”

Nor would I be a Poet-
It’s finer-own the Ear-
Enamored-impotent-content-
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With bolts of Melody!
 
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