Consider This Poem Some Collateral on My Next “Real” Blog Post: Day 57 of Medical Leave

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.

 

Convenience Store

 

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.

 

–Jeffrey Harrison

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7 Responses to Consider This Poem Some Collateral on My Next “Real” Blog Post: Day 57 of Medical Leave

  1. Jill says:

    I imagine Mr. Grady as the high school teacher working at the convenience store for some reason. Also, if it helps anything, even broken as you are you are one of the most intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever known. I spend way more time than I need to formulating comments to your blog because I want to impress you with my articulateness. Is that even a word?

    And words of encouragement: you’re strong. You’ve gotten through a lot, and if anyone can get to a sort of remission with fibromyalgia (I imagine it would be some sort of armistice with your nervous system) you can.

    • lfpbe says:

      Jill – I don’t think Mr. Grady would ever end up working in a convenience store. He had some kind of strange control over Brother Draper, remember? (speaking of, tomorrow is the 19-year anniversary of Operation Lulubelle, isn’t it?). And besides, given the manner in which he taught, I think working in a store would be much too difficult for him.

      I’m still intellectually stimulating inside my head. It’s the link between the inside of my head and the real world that’s broken. Thank you very much for your words of encouragement. I needed/need them. Armistice is a good word. But please don’t try to impress me. We’ve been friends way too long for that. Thanks again for the cat advice earlier this week. Cleo is fine – my vet told me not to worry unless I see the blood in her stools repeatedly. Hope all is well with you.

  2. Jill says:

    That’s kind of what I thought with Cleo–blood every once in a while is probably not a big deal.

    Tell me about why Mr. Grady’s style of teaching would make him a poor convenience store employee. This fascinates me. I know little about how people’s teaching styles reflect their personalities because it’s not a world in which I live. I could tell you all about how the way a person draws blood reveals their inner selves though.

    And yes, it will be 19 years (gulp) since operation lulubelle. Where does the time go?

    I don’t think impress is the right word…. I think not wanting you to think my brain has gone soft after years of not thinking about books in an analytical way would be more appropriate. I wish I had a book club.

    • lfpbe says:

      Grady didn’t do anything! When you work in a convenience store, you have responsibilities and have to do stuff. He just sat back at his desk with his feet up and thumbed through the books looking for vocabulary words, landing every single damn time on “ingenuous” and “disingenuous”! Remember how shocked we were the time he was being observed and he actually taught us some e.e. cummings poems? The first time I taught honors students I got really angry at Grady because honors students (and these happened to be juniors, as we were) are SO much fun to teach, but he never went out of his way to do any work to engage with us. His was the only class in high school that I ever fell asleep in (and I sat in the front row!).

      There was the time he blew up the TV, though. That was cool.

      Book clubs can be fun, but they almost always end up being more about gossip than discussing books. Write reviews with me for Postcards from Purgatory. That will motivate me to actually get that site up and running.

      There was a time (alas!) when the way I drew blood was with the spinning hook kick. What does that tell you about my inner self?

      B

  3. Jill says:

    I’m not going to say what that says about you in a public forum! 😉

    Yes, yes I do remember the one day he taught us. It was kind of good. That’s true, though. He really didn’t seem to care a whole lot about actually teaching or getting discussions going, did he? That really did us a disservice. Perhaps I’d have more positive thoughts about The Red Badge of Courage and The Scarlet Letter if he’d actually discussed them with us.

    I’d love to help with Postcards from Purgatory! That would get me to keep up more on my book journal. This week I spent a few hours and wrote about all the books I’ve read so far this year (that would be 16 books, and for several of them I had forgotten the names of most of the characters). Needless to say, the detail of my reviews was a bit lacking.

    I finished Zeitoun today and started The White Tiger. I’m only about 20 pages in, and all I have to say is that the narrator has some issues to work through about his native land.

    • lfpbe says:

      Oh, good! I wanted to ask you to work on PfP with me a long time ago but for some reason I didn’t think you would want to. I’m happy! As soon as I figure out how, I will add you as a co-blogger so you can log on. I have the first few posts partially done. I am fighting my perfectionist tendencies…

      I loved White Tiger and want to read Zeitoun. On my list…

      B

  4. Jill says:

    Zeitoun is definitely worth reading. I was concerned it would be a bit too heavy handed, but it was a good balance of narrative and just a small amount of “how could this happen in this country” sort of stuff. I have read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (a while back) and didn’t love it, so I’ve been reluctant to read any of Dave Eggers’ other books. I’m glad I read this one, though, and will probably give What is the What a try one of these days.

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