Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Kevin Clark

Class Politics


It was clear Maurice had been messed with plenty—
and that he’d messed right back. At the second class,
I asked him a question about a Faulkner story,
and he sized me up with a look that said
you may be my age and my teacher, but
if you ever screw with me I’ll guarantee
the DNA you’ve stored in your miserable balls
for that sweet-ass kid you’ve been planning
will meet a death so horrible only dogs will heary
our screams. I’d never had a vet that burnt
in class before, but I knew to believe the look.
Semi-official word from on-high claimed
at least three released murderers had joined
the student body, and that day Maurice
brought this factoid into gut-check relief.
I’d already explained how each student gets
at least one question every class, but plainly he
wasn’t impressed with my pedagogy, so I made sure
only to call on him when his face said it was okay
this time. Raw red skin between black strands
of beard, the irises of his eyes full open as if he saw
inside and out at once, he looked like burst flesh
willed back into a man.


Only one other
re-entry student took my class that term:
A criminology major, pretty dark-haired
middle-aged Angel from down-state Ohio
read every assignment with check-list zeal.
Each break she’d pull out a compact
for her midday mascara. She liked Frost,
she said, because he was just like her mother,
who, if you want to know, was hired on
as the first female cop in the county exactly
one year after her father died. The poet,
he seems all ladylike, she said. You know:
looks good sounds nice but down deep cuts no one
no slack, not like her two redneck sisters
who married way down the food chain and
didn’t care their husbands roughed ’em up
every couple months. No one else spoke to Angel
outside of class—one girl said she was too weird
for wheels, a real nouveau bitch. But they liked
her stories, even if she talked over them all.
And since Maurice rarely spoke, the two hadn’t


A month into the term, he arrived
like a hit man at my office door—only to discuss
the upcoming essay he was writing on
Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” All along
I’d wanted to ask him about his name, the kind
of crap even best friends must have put him
through. Then again, I wanted him to like me
well enough he’d never kill me, so with practiced
diffidence I asked what drew him to that story, and
he simply said, Nick had been to war. Turned out,
his paper was better than I’d have guessed, the writing
chopped into short, chewed sentences that linked
Nick’s lonely, hip-booted fishing to the moment
Maurice shot up a hundred-yard line of bushes
from his boat on the Mekong, how he’d heard
the cries over the engine, but couldn’t see who’d
been hit. That was it. Though he never wrote why Nick
pushed deeper into the thicket, he seemed
pleased enough with his “B.”


Two weeks before finals, the class squeezed into a circle
for Hurston’s “Sweat.” I asked them to imagine
Delia’s life with her no-good husband Sykes
before he tried to kill her. Not a black kid
in the group, the usual talkers spoke up right away
with the kind of righteousness Hurston used
to condemn bony Delia into the four walls
of our own sins, how Delia remained outside the house
doing nothing while Sykes’ mortal pleadings
poured from the windows. Twice I’d asked Angel
to screw down her urge to speak, at least so others
had time to answer questions. But this topic
just stripped her bolts of thread. That woman did
what she had to, she told the class with a clichéd,up
tempo sneer we’d not heard before. Haven’t
you been in cities when those animals walk
full across the sidewalk and won’t give you
the right of way? And in case we didn’t catch
her meaning: Listen, she hummed, you gotta know,
those so-called men, they’d just as soon kill you
as rob you, then laugh as you’re bleeding
there in the street. She paused, gave out
a last conclusive sigh. That’s why they’re called


Shot silent as the rest of the class,
ever a believer in their democratic right
to make ugly fools of themselves, I raced
through a brain full of broken lines. It was 1984,
and I felt that old teacherly urge to preserve
what we’d come to call “student dignity.”
But I was also pressed to counter each word
she’d said, especially the last, going off
again and again in our ears. Angel sat back
without noticing the motionless air of the room,
legs crossed in their black tailored slacks,
the pearl necklace, the earrings, the silver bracelet
all hung in place as if she were born to being right.
I was still looking at her


When I heard his voice.
At first, it came at me like static. I turned to see
Maurice speaking at the floor, then slowly raising
his face. When I turned back, Angel’s eyes
began their slow-motion focus on him. It’s not hard
to figure there’s lots of different groups
in the world and none of them are all one way
or the other, he said, his low voice finding its way
through the brush. It’s just a fact that
there are ones you can tell right off
they’re okay, and then there are some, he said
—rotating his two-way gaze Angel’s direction—
who are plain scum.


I can’t remember
what I said. I know I stumbled a few seconds,
hyper conscious of the class, how we’d lost
any chance at that high when teacher and students
forget the other life, when only hours ago
an old boyfriend called in seductive apology,
or a wife to say she’s ovulating, or
a drunk lieutenant to kill a few hours.
For a few seconds, all that’s vanished. Decades
back, I expected transcendence every class.
my own hesitation that day, I didn’t realize
the students took home a story they’d tell for weeks.
I probably called it a class, then crawled back
to my office. Your students are the lesson,
was the Zen motto. I doubt they felt I failed them.
Two weeks later I gazed up at Maurice
from the front desk as he handed me his final exam.
When I said goodbye, he looked me directly
in the eye, then simply nodded. I never saw him
again. Though he’d been the only student to scare
the wise-ass right out of me, I can still recall
the measured pitch of his voice that one moment,
as if he were talking to himself, even
as he stared right through Angel’s stung face.
He was at war. She was not the enemy.

-poem previously published at Rattle

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