The Teacher’s Apology Poem
He wanted to worship her, adore her, enshrine her, erect a pedestal in his heart and appoint her queen. In return, she would teach him how to live as she taught him how to write, and he would be forever in her thrall.
Three a.m.: again, John had neglected to take his medication. He was whirling on the wings of his own self-conscious wisdom, a dervish of desire, waiting for spring semester to start – his last – when the teacher would materialize in the classroom like a Glenda the Good Witch to anoint him with writerly unguents, the same oils and salves she used on herself – her pens and pads and other implements of their religion.
His desire for her was not sexual. He had no especially sexual desires inside him. Rather, he believed that the right teacher, male or female, gay or straight, would, at this late and crucial date in John’s career, somehow, purposefully and subtly, stand him upright and drive him forward on the path to writerly righteousness.
These thoughts he pounded into his 1928 L.C. Smith & Company typewriter, which he’d bought for $20 at
an estate sale, an insanely heavy and beautiful piece of machinery which made him feel like a true writer, like
Bukowski or Kerouac or Burroughs, his holy trinity, who, in his visions, always wore white Oxford shirts, heavily creased, and tan corduroys, slightly to very soiled, drinking and smoking as they typed in a circle of light at 3. a.m.
as he himself was doing., in a cheap basement studio, words coming too fast to set down exactly as he wished.
His dyslexia made reading painful, even torturous, but he’d read their collected works once and was now starting on a second tour. These men had no computer screens, no electronic high-lighting, no spell checks. Just the heart of the night and their fingers poking, one on each hand, stabbing the chest of the keyboard with purpose and insight. Alcohol did not especially interest John – his father drank two martinis, Beefeater’s only, every night after coming home from the bank – but any other drug which might stimulate his creative powers, spark or prod or speed them up in some novel way was a young writer’s prerogative or even duty, his debt to muses, John thought.
Ecstasy, acid, hash, cocaine, uppers and downers, methamphetamine and even heroin he’d popped in his mouth or his nose, his pipe or his arm – any method would do to find the exquisitely concealed caches where words might lie, dormant, awaiting a reveille, a revelation, a coming into writerly consciousness. The sole substance he scorned was lithium, the only parentally sponsored drug in his repertoire. Sometimes he took it, more often he didn’t, despising the way it dumbed him down, as TV and Stephen King did so many of his peers. On lithium, his thoughts labored into words, refused the transubstantiation into poetry, into art. What artist ever took psychotropic medication dawn to dusk and produced anything worthy, anything at all?
For his friends, however, drugs were the end and not the means. For John, getting high was a way to getting wise, a chemical Tao, a tool to unearth the essence he knew was there, buried by a childhood of privilege and plenty, a set of parents, stepparents and stepsiblings with their plethora of petty concerns, their cars and clothes, their dating and debutante balls. None of it interested John, though he was polite and pretended to care when looked to for affirmation. Unfortunately, they never did the same for him, would groan at his purposefully dorky glasses and dog-eared paperbacks, would whine when he wouldn’t go to the game, the mall, the dance.
In high school, his English teacher recognized the dyslexia and had him tested – a great relief to John to know his struggle was not stupidity but a result of genes, misfiring. His father and current stepmother, however, did not believe in the existence of learning disabilities and told him to focus on what he could do instead: Math. While the letters reversed in his mind’s eye, the numbers never did, dollar signs too dull to change shape, too straightforward to disguise themselves. His father wanted John to be a banker, like him. John despised money. He insisted on clothing himself from the aisles of St. Vincent instead of Saks, like his stepmother and stepsiblings. Stepmother #2 refused to look at him when he wore the gas station blue coveralls which said “Dick” in swirling red letters above his left breast pocket. He lived in that suit for the entire 11th grade, a period during which he kept his first poetry journal, not a word of which he could decipher later.
None of his teachers, all through boarding school, had actually been writers, though they’d encouraged him to write. Finally he would sit in a classroom with a woman who had published a book. Not only a book, but poems,
essays, reviews and stories in dozens of publications he had never heard of, with strange, alluring names like
Nepenthe, Midrash, and SIFRUT.
He read her novel in the library, and her file of xeroxed stories on reserve. She wrote about ordinary women and men going to work, falling in love and failing at it, about gays and Jews who suffered from persecution, actual and imagined. None of it spoke to his life, to his father’s annual Mercedes and Andover reunions he went to more often
than reunions ought to occur. In her fiction were no golfing vacations to St. Andrews, no dry martinis and no country houses which changed with each new wife, the new houses appearing as the old houses disappeared with the old
His real mother had fled to Nepal to “find herself” when he was 4, had, in fact, ransomed her son in exchange for self-discovery, and John wanted to honor his mother’s sacrifice, her offering up of her only son to the altar of wisdom. He remembered little of his mother: her silky blond hair she worked in a bun, which he’d tried to unravel with his baby hands and put in his mouth. He remembered the almond taste of her shampoo and the way she would extract her hair from his mouth, strand by strand.
The teacher was dark and small, and he did not connect her with his mother but hoped instead she would embody the enlightenment his mother had sought so many years before, and, as far as he knew, achieved. The
teacher had studied philosophy, religion, and history and lived all over the world. These bits of information came from people who’d taken her classes. They said she was hard, or funny, often in a bad mood – comments anyone might
make about any professor, but none spoke to what his own observations would be. And so he dismissed the
naysayers, those who didn’t like her, as if teaching writing or learning it involved mundane emotions like “liking.”
Advanced Poetry and Prose met Monday nights. John had taken the prerequisite classes with the old poet, a man who was kind but distant, who corrected his grammar and wrote “interesting but too abstract” on the margins of John’s poems. The poet had published and won prizes as a young man, but he didn’t look to John like a real writer. Instead he looked like the grandfather he was, or like a professor – he had an impressive white beard and smoked a pipe – and he complained about his digestion or traffic on the freeway and often let class go early after he told them stories of his childhood as a farmer’s son in Indiana. These were not, to John, a writer’s stories, though the poet had made a career out of publishing poems about his experiences on the farm during the Depression, a life of hardship and hunger, privation and loss.
The woman teacher was young and had an East Coast accent; she wore bright colors and flashing jewelry. She had big teeth, a swath of gray through her black braid, and cursed in class. She was known to raise her voice when students hadn’t done their reading. She was, he thought, someone who had lived, and, more importantly, who knew how to turn the lived life into the written word, into the writing life, and he planned to learn this skill – the only skill John believed worth having – from her example. He anticipated the many hours of conversation they would have in her office, a room crammed with more books that he could ever read in his lifetime. They would go to the Union and drink coffee together, and she would recognize the talent less astute teachers had failed to see. She would point him in the direction of those obscure magazines for the early poems, then to the publishers in New York who had made the careers of Kerouac, Bukowski and Burroughs, for surely she would know powerful people everywhere, would have an “in” to the world he longed to enter, more than he wanted anything in this world.
When the new semester began, he resolved permanently to disregard the medication in favor of a writing life, centered on the Monday class which would bring order and definition to his last months as a student. For the first class, he wore new, delicate glasses, gold-rimmed. A quiet intelligence settled in with the thin but strong wires which snugged gently over his ears. His shirt and jacket were fresh from the cleaners, his notebook virgin. The teacher was known for her fountain pens, which she used to write sprawling, nearly
illegible comments over and around their stories in bright ink – an extreme contrast to the farmer poet’s tiny-penciled marginalia. In her honor, he bought a Mont Blanc, which he displayed on the table like a diviner’s rod, as he and 23 others awaited her late arrival.
Up close, she was older, with lines by her eyes and her hair more gray than black. She wore a red corduroy jumper reaching to the floor, with an ecru turtleneck beneath it, which made her look Victorian, a foreign and not very compelling style to John. Instead of the opening witticism he’d expected, the first words from her mouth were, “How many of you are trying to add this class?”
Several students raised their hands. Then she passed out a syllabus and actually read it aloud, all four pages, which took a painfully long time. John’s hopes withered by the minute, but he nursed a belief that she was trying to repulse the less dedicated so that only the devoted remained. That way, he and a handful of serious students would gather round her, and to them alone she would reveal her true self – the writer for whom adds and drops and grades mattered not at all. This was, after all, the most advanced writing class in the college, mixing poetry and fiction, which had never been taught before.
“What about you?” she was suddenly saying to John.
“I’m sorry?” He looked into her dark, puffy eyes with bewilderment.
“What was the last book you read?” She seemed to smile with encouragement, but he knew she hated him already for his failure to pay attention, and for what he assumed she would think his ignorance, as if he didn’t read. But he couldn’t remember the name of
even one book. As soon as she said, “We’ll come back to you, okay?” and went on to the next person, someone she knew from a previous class, to whom she smiled openly, the names of every Kerouac, Burroughs and Bukowski book flooded into his memory reserves. After going around the circle, she did not come back to him, as promised.
Now she was holding up a paperback, asking if anyone had already bought it. The people around him were grumbling as they pulled it from their knapsacks. He hadn’t thought to check the bookstore beforehand for a textbook. He thought they would simply write and read one another’s work, but here she was apologizing for the pricy slender anthology, saying she hoped it would be worth the 35 smackeroos – she actually said smackeroos – they’d added to their Visa debt because of it.
He cringed as she began to read a poem aloud, asking them to follow along on page 76. It was the apology poem, the plums-in-the-icebox poem, a poem he detested for its lack of engagement with anything meaningful. Looking over his neighbor’s shoulder, he stammered on every word when his turn came: “so cold, so delicious.” Just as he’d feared, she wanted them to write an apology poem, as his 9th grade teacher had required. “For those of you who’ve seen this poem before, and done this assignment” – a muttering of assent went around the room – “try to up the ante on the apology you wrote before. Does anyone know what I mean by `up the ante’?”
He hated when teachers asked you to define their terms. Several people suggested meanings for upping the ante – a term he despised for its monetary connotation, a term his father used – and she nodded, playing with her fountain pen, before giving her definition, evidently the only correct meaning. “ I mean moving from the literal to the metaphoric, or the abstract to the concrete – whichever’s the direction most apt for you.” Again this stress on the concrete, just like the farmer poet repeated, poem after poem. How boring, this concreteness. She gave them 7 minutes to write.
The room fell slowly into silence, people rummaging about in their knapsacks for pencil and paper, or both. He didn’t want to ruin his new leather notebook with an apology poem written in plums-in-the-icebox mode, so he wrote instead an exploration of the feeling of the needle plunging beneath his skin for the first time: skin-popping, his friend Dylan had called it. He wondered if the teacher would be impressed or horrified by an apology for skin-popping.
He studied her as she fussed with her pen, shaking it, trying to write, but no ink came forth. The teacher asked the girl next to her if she had an extra pen, and as the student searched in her bag, the teacher saw John studying her from across the room. She smiled vaguely before turning to her notebook. After giving up on the skin-popping description, he observed his neighbor, a girl with fuchsia hair, two nose rings, and very delicate fingers. Her apology was to her mother, and she chewed on her left pinky as she wrote with a stubby pencil, scratching out one word after another. His other neighbor, a jock with thick wrists, wrote about killing a fox, by accident, at home on his farm in Idaho. More farm stories; John cringed.
By the time the teacher had finished her own poem, more than 7 minutes had passed, and people were whispering. She checked her watch and blinked. “Oh! I’m sorry! I got carried away by the power of my own poetry,” she said, laughing, and everyone joined her, except John. She seemed to be mocking them, even though she was mocking herself too, or worse, mocking poetry itself.
“Let’s take a break, and we’ll start up in 15 minutes, okay?”
During the interim, he smoked a cigarette with the fuchsia-haired girl, Sarah, whom he recognized from his history class. She confessed to having read his poem, and they talked quietly about heroin, which she had tried once. It made her sick to her stomach, but she liked what it did to her head and wanted to try it again. She, too had read Burroughs, but her favorite was Anne Waldman, and she unearthed a copy of her latest book to read him a heavily underlined passage.
The teacher did not come outside to linger with the students, which John resented, though it was the rare professor who joined the smoking circles. When Sarah asked what he thought of the teacher, he said he’d wait and see, though already his disappointment was massive and expanding.
After break, students good-naturedly read their apologies, and the teacher said thank you to each person, no matter how awful or how intelligent the poem. When they got to John, he said he’d pass, and the teacher, frowning, said she hoped he’d change his mind, as they were all strangers there, all embarrassed, and it was important to throw his cards in with the rest of them – another metaphor he detested. “Just one line,” she prodded. Not wanting to disclose his secret, he read, “self-immolation; gray and blossoming.” She said thank you and went to Sarah. He could tell she loved Sarah’s poem, which apologized to her mother for stealing her typewriter, and by extension, her voice. When the teacher said thank you to Sarah, her smile seemed to John not only sincere, but full of admiration.
Then, more discussion of deadlines and photocopying and the logistics of getting stories and poems in mailboxes leaving sufficient time for written feedback. Unlike the farmer poet, this teacher wanted them to type their thoughts about each other’s work, and to give her a copy of their comments. She even had a form for their feedback to follow, and he resented this extra portion of busywork, as if it were not enough to write a new poem each week.
Before dismissing them, the teacher confessed that she was nervous about teaching poetry. Though she wrote it, she hadn’t taught it since she came to the college, where students were lucky to study with ______________, and she named the farmer poet. She said the poets in the class would have to be patient, and she would try not to emphasize fiction, which she called “home.”
John headed for the parking lot, surprised to find Sarah following, asking for a ride. He was ashamed of his car, his father’s penultimate Mercedes wagon, but Sarah said she’d always wanted to ride in one, and she rolled a joint as she walked, a feat he admired and told her so.
As the weeks passed, John’s feeling of betrayal metastasized. On his poems the teacher wrote, “too abstract” and “see TS Eliot’s obj. correl.” Which he did not understand. On his critiques of the other students’ work, she wrote “insufficient” and gave him a check minus-minus. On most students’ she didn’t voice opinions, exactly, but sometimes her comments were encouraging, while he felt only negativity when he read her words on his work. Her feedback to Sarah radiated faith.
Depression settled over him like a pall, an air so thick he could not see through it to another human being. Only Sarah made the effort to push through. He didn’t know why she liked him – he’d never had any luck with girls – but she seemed intensely comfortable around him. “Go talk to her, “Sarah advised when he said he wasn’t comfortable communicating with the teacher. “She’s really nice in her office.” Sarah went every week to office hours, and already the teacher was loaning her books with personalized inscriptions by famous authors and revealing bits of her life, showing Sarah the latest rejections on her new novel. He liked Sarah too much to be jealous, exactly, but the teacher’s lack of interest in his poems was too much to bear. Reluctantly, he xeroxed his forms from student Services indicating the extent of his learning disabilities and left them in the teacher’s mailbox.
John stopped writing, and only Sarah’s encouragement could make him show up for class. He never read aloud during the “read-arounds.” When the semester was half over, he received a deficiency report from both his classes, and the registrar’s note advised him to make appointments with his professors immediately.
Without warning, energy galloped back into his blood. That night, he started a new novel, his first attempt at prose. For six days he did nothing but write; he didn’t sleep or eat or go to school, and the words poured forth, drenching page after page, his language dense and thick, brilliant as he re-read each line before typing the next, but he couldn’t read more than one line at a time. His sentences seemed to him perfect, like diamonds of light on the crests of waves, and if they didn’t cohere in the traditional way, it hardly mattered, for he was, after all a poet. He forgot about deadlines and copy-making and put the original in the teacher’s mailbox Monday afternoon.
Before class, he and Sarah ate dinner together, or rather, he watched her eat; she was board-thin and ravenous. Sarah wanted to read his story, but since he didn’t write on a computer like everyone else, his new work existed solely in the teacher’s hands.
At break, he went up to her for his first one-on-one conversation, “John,” the teacher said, playing with her fountain pen. “I’d been hoping you’d come see me during office hours.” She seemed to be squinting at him. He decided it was because she had trouble imagining how this extremely shy boy could have written the extraordinary masterwork she’d read that afternoon.
“What did you think of my story?” he asked.
“The story you just put in my box?” She made it sound like he’d left a pile of dog shit there. He nodded. “John, you know stories are due Fridays so we get the weekend to read. I haven’t been able to get to it.” She looked at him carefully. “Are you all right?”
Swallowing, he looked away. He couldn’t believe she hadn’t read it when she’d obviously had enough time to page through her mail and see what was there. “I’m fine,” he said, and as he headed out she called, “Come see me during my office hours. Okay?” He made his way to the car, where he wept over the wheel of his Mercedes wagon, cursing her indifference.
When he got home, he mainlined for the first time. The loneliness he’d felt talking to the teacher faded into the warm gray cloud which filled up his room and the air and speakers pulsing “Dead Can Dance,” the music and the heroin together smoothing out the hard places in his mind and the holes in his heart and he didn’t care anymore about writing his novel or the excruciating disappointment of the teacher herself; he didn’t care about anything at all, and his worries and his writing self fell away into loving blackness.
Sarah was shaking him awake the next morning. She had bitten her nails down to bloody, purple-painted quicks, yet she was smiling. “Thank you god, thank you god,” she kept repeating. After entering his unlocked apartment last night, she’d sat up with him, worried he’d overdosed. The teacher had asked her about him, she said, if he was okay when he left during break, and if there was anything she could do for him.
“What’d you tell her?”
“I said you were shy.”
His machine picked up the call from the director of the counseling center, who said he wanted simply to see how John was doing; he said he made these courtesy calls to all seniors in their last semester, which John knew was a lie.
All day, he and Sarah watched the feet of passersby march on the pavement outside his window. The phone rang with his history teacher calling to say he’d better check in with him this week, or he would fail the class. The writing teacher never called.
He offered his Mont Blanc to Sarah as a birthday gift, and, after refusing several times, she relented. When he asked to see the teacher’s comments on her latest story, she reluctantly pulled out the critique, her pale skin flushing nearly as bright as her hair.
This is powerful work, Sarah. Your description of the young boy’s loneliness reminds me of Joyce’s first stories in DUBLINERS. You’re getting awfully close with this draft, but my sense is that the setting needs further development. We seem to be in Generic American suburbia. Why not make it a real place, with specific geography, environs, etc.?
In a postscript, she added that, with certain revisions, the story might be worth submitting to a local magazine contest for unpublished writers.
When he got to the end, he began to cry, his tears slow and thick, and as he rose to escape to the bathroom, Sarah reached out to rub his shoulder through the bleached cotton of his new Oxford shirt. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I think I need to be alone,” he said.
After she left, he took his lithium for the first time in months. Self-loathing consumed him, and he decided that if he was going to be stupid and talentless, he might as well dumb himself down with drugs so that he didn’t care too much about it.
The next day, he worked out with his history teacher what he needed to do to pass. Since the English class wasn’t necessary for him to graduate, he decided to withdraw. Hoping to leave the form with secretary, he arrived at lunch and was writing a note to the teacher when she walked in.
“John, do you have a minute?”
Clutching the yellow withdrawal slip, he followed her into her office. “I’ve been concerned about you, hoping you’d come see me before now. I figured the deficiency report –as much as I hate that sort of thing – would get you here.”
He held up the slip. “Will you sign this?”
Her expression combined relief with disappointment. “ I don’t want you to drop the course, John. It’s not too late for us to figure out a way for you to pass the class, if you can get your portfolio in on time and catch up with all the critiques.”
His mouth was dry, his tongue sticking to the roof – one of lithium’s many side effects. “I don’t care about passing.” He offered the form again. “I don’t need the credits.”
She sighed, then rifled through her briefcase. “Here,” she said, pulling his story out of the green folder. “I read this. I wrote you a critique.” With his right hand, he gave her the withdrawal slip, and with his left, he accepted the manuscript.
“I’m sorry, John. I wish you wouldn’t just quit,” she said, signing the form.
He shrugged. “I don’t see the point in going on.”
Suddenly she rose and shut the door. “Look, I just want to say, if you’re having some kind of problem…” She put the tip of her braid in her mouth and chewed, then extricated a long gray hair. “Sorry. Bad habit. What I mean to say,” she paused, flushing, “I’ve noticed you write about drugs. There’s a lot of drugs in this story, and, well, if you’re having trouble, I hope you’re getting some help. I had my own problems with drugs, back in
my twenties.” She tried to smile. “I wouldn’t have been able to write if I hadn’t dealt with the drug stuff. I’m not judging you, John. I just want you to be well.”
From a distant, lithium-glazed place, John understood that her words were sincere. But it didn’t matter anymore. While she was talking, he’d read her comments, and it was clear she thought the story was no good. Too abstract, not concrete enough, confusing and hard to follow, with characters she couldn’t visualize.
“I’m really a poet,” he said.
“And you said you didn’t know how to teach poetry.”
“I’m learning, though.” She looked away from him. “I feel more sure of
myself with fiction, that’s for certain.”
“Maybe you should stick to fiction, then,” he said, getting up.
She winced. “Could be.”
“I don’t do drugs, anyway. A lot of my friends do, and I’m a good observer.” He opened the door and looked back. The teacher was huddled over her desk, looking much smaller than she did when she stood in front of the classroom, determining their writing lives. He hoped he’d made an impression.
When he walked in his cap and gown with Sarah at commencement, they passed between the teacher and the farmer poet. His lithium levels had stabilized, and he hadn’t done any drugs in the last month. The week before, he’d sold his typewriter at a 500% profit to an antiques dealer. Both the poet and the fiction teacher wanted to shake his hand, and he smiled graciously at each as he accepted their congratulations. He glimpsed his father and new stepmother waving from the bleachers.
"Keep writing," said the poet.
"Don't give up," said the teacher.