poem index

On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students

A collection of poems devoted to teaching, learning and just being in the now.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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The Teacher
Hilarie Jones
I was twenty-six the first time I held
a human heart in my hand.

It was sixty-four and heavier than I expected,
its chambers slack;
and I was stupidly surprised
at how cold it was.

It was the middle of the third week
before I could look at her face,
before I could spend more than an hour
learning the secrets of cirrhosis,
the dark truth of diabetes, the black lungs
of the Marlboro woman, the exquisite 
painful shape of kidney stones,
without eating an entire box of Altoids
to smother the smell of formaldehyde.

After seeing her face, I could not help
but wonder if she had a favorite color;
if she hated beets,
or loved country music before her hearing 
faded, or learned to read
before cataracts placed her in perpetual twilight.
I wondered if her mother had once been happy
when she'd come home from school
or if she'd ever had a valentine from a secret admirer.

In the weeks that followed, I would
drive the highways, scanning billboards.
I would see her face, her eyes
squinting away the cigarette smoke,
or she would turn up at the bus stop
pushing a grocery cart of empty
beer cans and soda bottles. I wondered
if that was how she'd paid for all those smokes
or if the scars of repeated infections in her womb
spoke to a more universal currency.

Did she die, I wondered, in a cardboard box
under the Burnside Bridge, nursing a bottle
of strawberry wine, telling herself
she felt a little warmer now, 
or in the Good Faith Shelter, 
her few belongings safe under the sheet 
held to her faltering heart?
Or in the emergency room, lying
on a wheeled gurney, the pitiless
lights above, the gauzy curtains around?

Did she ever wonder what it all was for?

I wish I could have told her in those days
what I've now come to know: that
it was for this--the baring
of her body on the stainless steel table--
that I might come to know its secrets
and, knowing them, might listen
to the machine-shop hum of aortic stenosis
in an old woman's chest, smile a little to myself
and, in gratitude to her who taught me,

put away my stethoscope, turn to my patient
and say Let's talk about your heart.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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Kindness
Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world's a stage]
William Shakespeare, 1564 - 1616

Jaques to Duke Senior

                   
                          All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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My life has been the poem I would have writ
Henry David Thoreau, 1817 - 1862

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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O Captain! My Captain!
Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather'd every rack,
      the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
      While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart!
      O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
      O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up- for you the flag is flung- for
      you the bugle trills, 
                                  
         For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths- for you the shores
             a-crowding,
          For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
             Here Captain! dear father!
               This arm beneath your head!
                 It is some dream that on the deck,
                   You've fallen cold and dead.

          My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
          My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
          The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
          From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
               Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                 But I with mournful tread,
                   Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                     Fallen cold and dead.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942
Philip Levine, 1928

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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I Hear America Singing
Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
     and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
     work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
     deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
     as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the
     morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
     work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
     fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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Invictus
William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,   
  Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
  For my unconquerable soul.   
   
In the fell clutch of circumstance 
  I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
  My head is bloody, but unbowed.   
   
Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
  Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years   
  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   
   
It matters not how strait the gate,   
  How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
  I am the captain of my soul.
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To Rosa
Abraham Lincoln
You are young, and I am older;
      You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
      Pluck the roses ere they rot.

Teach your beau to heed the lay—
      That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now's as good as any day—
      To take thee, Rosa, ere she fade.
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We Real Cool
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917 - 2000
                   THE POOL PLAYERS. 
                   SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.



We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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Nonsense Alphabet
Edward Lear, 1812 - 1888
A

A was an ant
Who seldom stood still,
And who made a nice house
In the side of a hill.

a
Nice little ant!

*

B

B was a book
With a binding of blue,
And pictures and stories
For me and for you.

b
Nice little book!

*

C

C was a cat
Who ran after a rat;
But his courage did fail
When she seized on his tail.

c
Crafty old cat!

*

D

D was a duck
With spots on his back,
Who lived in the water,
And always said "Quack!"

d
Dear little duck!

*

E

E was an elephant,
Stately and wise:
He had tusks and a trunk,
And two queer little eyes.

e
Oh, what funny small eyes!

*

F

F was a fish
Who was caught in a net;
But he got out again,
And is quite alive yet.

f
Lively young fish!

*

G

G was a goat
Who was spotted with brown:
When he did not lie still
He walked up and down.

g
Good little goat!

*

H

H was a hat
Which was all on one side;
Its crown was too high,
And its brim was too wide.

h
Oh, what a hat!

*

I

I was some ice
So white and so nice,
But which nobody tasted;
And so it was wasted.

i
All that good ice!

*

J

J was a jackdaw
Who hopped up and down
In the principal street
Of a neighboring town.

j
All through the town!

*

K

K was a kite
Which flew out of sight,
Above houses so high,
Quite into the sky.

k
Fly away, kite!

*

L

L was a light
Which burned all the night,
And lighted the gloom
Of a very dark room.

l
Useful nice light!

*

M

M was a mill
Which stood on a hill,
And turned round and round
With a loud hummy sound.

m
Useful old mill!

*

N

N was a net
Which was thrown in the sea
To catch fish for dinner
For you and for me.

n
Nice little net!

*

O

O was an orange
So yellow and round:
When it fell off the tree,
It fell down to the ground.

o
Down to the ground!

*

P

P was a pig,
Who was not very big;
But his tail was too curly,
And that made him surly.

p
Cross little pig!

*

Q

Q was a quail
With a very short tail;
And he fed upon corn
In the evening and morn.

q
Quaint little quail!

*

R

R was a rabbit,
Who had a bad habit
Of eating the flowers
In gardens and bowers.

r
Naughty fat rabbit!

*

S

S was the sugar-tongs,
sippity-see,
To take up the sugar
To put in our tea.

s
sippity-see!

*

T

T was a tortoise,
All yellow and black:
He walked slowly away,
And he never came back.

t
Torty never came back!

*

U

U was an urn
All polished and bright,
And full of hot water
At noon and at night.

u
Useful old urn!

*

V

V was a villa
Which stood on a hill,
By the side of a river,
And close to a mill.

v
Nice little villa!

*

W

W was a whale
With a very long tail,
Whose movements were frantic
Across the Atlantic.

w
Monstrous old whale!

*

X

X was King Xerxes,
Who, more than all Turks, is
Renowned for his fashion
Of fury and passion.

x
Angry old Xerxes!

*

Y

Y was a yew,
Which flourished and grew
By a quiet abode
Near the side of a road.

y
Dark little yew!

*

Z

Z was some zinc,
So shiny and bright,
Which caused you to wink
In the sun's merry light.

z
Beautiful zinc!
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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Patience
Kay Ryan, 1945
Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant 
ranges and 
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest 
relish by
natives in their 
native dress.
Who would 
have guessed
it possible 
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with 
its own harvests.
Or that in 
time's fullness
the diamonds 
of patience
couldn't be 
distinguished
from the genuine 
in brilliance
or hardness.
On Teaching: Dedicated to All My Students
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The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost, 1874 - 1963
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.