When I was nineteen – the same age as the speaker is in the incident he recalls in the poem below – I heard Jeffrey Harrison read this poem at the Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, where I was working as an intern for the summer. Talk about a dream job: for most of the summer I manned the small museum and gift shop at one of Robert Frost’s former homes – the one at which he wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and many other masterpieces – and for one week I assisted the director in running a small poetry conference. At the time, like the boys in the poem, I wasn’t “prepared for any future / except one of effortless accomplishment,” and you shouldn’t have too much trouble understanding why this poem resonates with me now.
Since I’ve been away from work, I’ve received some very nice letters and cards from my colleagues and students. Last week, a letter arrived that said, “I never completely understood the phrase ‘intellectually stimulating’ until I took your English class.’” How do I respond: I’m reading lots of children’s books these days? I can’t even concentrate long enough to write a blog entry once a week? How do I explain to kids I love that I am cracked and broken in a million pieces?
Just so you know, in many ways I’m feeling better. Acupuncture is helping. Sitting for an hour with the needles in has the mental and physical effect on me of a large dose of Vicodin. I go home after each treatment and treat myself like a glass figurine, terrified that one false move will bring the pain back. And with each treatment I have more pain-free hours. I am generally sleeping well and finding it easy to relax. But my brain is still switched off, and I’m still weighted down by fatigue. The days are spinning by rapidly – probably because I don’t have as much physical discomfort to make the hours drag – and I’m not showing any signs of wanting to get up and rejoin the world. I can’t imagine that anyone – especially someone as smart as the student who wrote that letter – will ever tell me again that I taught them the meaning of the words “intellectually stimulating.”
And you know what? That sucks.
It was too late: the three of us were already
Inside the glass door of the convenience store
When we noticed the man behind the counter
Was our bulge-eyed biology teacher from ninth grade.
That face of a frog pickled in formaldehyde,
We’d have recognized it anywhere… but here?
We would have given anything to disappear,
To avoid the situation, and avoid
Having to imagine what had happened to him
In the few years since we’d left for college.
None of us imagined that in six years
I’d be teaching English to ninth graders
In a school much like the one we’d gone to,
And that I’d be so miserable doing it
I’d have to quit and take a low-pay job
As a guard in a museum, where I’d sit
Reading a book, look up at Van Goghs and Bonnards
Depicting places I would rather be,
Or stare at Rothkos until I was floating.
But back then we weren’t prepared for any future
Except one of effortless accomplishment,
As we weren’t prepared for this encounter
And couldn’t think of anything to do
Except keep going toward the beer we’d come for
And carry it up to the counter, looking down
At the racks of candy as he rang it up.
Nobody said a thing. The silence stiffened
And divided us from him, until one of us –
The future investment banker in New York –
Ruptured the invisible membrane by laughing
And making a comment I’m glad I can’t recall.
Nor do I remember our teacher’s reply,
Only his inane smile, as if held by pins,
And what I now realize was sadness
Swelling those eyes we thought were only comic –
But we were already hustling toward the door
And out into the snow-plowed parking lot,
Where a raw gust hit us flush in the face
And stuffed the breath back down our gulping throats.