A challenge from NPR

I receive a newsletter from NPR, and today’s had a section titled: “NPR asked listeners to submit poems celebrating the teachers who impacted their lives.”


Well, well, well.

I enjoy the fact that they said “impacted” – because, yeah, my teachers impacted me all right. Perhaps not in the way NPR meant it. So THAT’s what “triggered” means. I spent an hour or so knocking off my submission (darn, if only it wasn’t too late!), and I don’t know what else to do with it, so …

Thanks for the idea, NPR! This was fun.


Did you even see me?
Did you ever pause
When you got to my name in your roll
And think “is she ok?”
I wasn’t.
Did you ever bother to wonder
Why I was absent so often?
(It’s not me – it’s you.)
There was no trouble at home
I wasn’t showing up with bruises
and downcast eyes
That wasn’t the issue
(Would you have helped if it had been?)
I didn’t know why I was different
It took decades to find out


You tsking at me because I didn’t raise my hand more
You laughing at me because I read my five minute oral report
in three minutes
because I just wanted to get back to my seat
You huffing and pouting because the one thing I liked
The Creative Learning Program
for “advanced students”
(which was actually completely pointless)
took a few of us out of your class one day a week
and you had to do extra work to help us make up the day
You accusing me of plagiarism with that poem I wrote
And correcting my spelling incorrectly
And making me afraid to stick my head up even that far
ever again
You failing, utterly, to do anything to help me
Every day
Every year
From the second grade on.
(I had a wonderful teacher in the second grade.
She was the last one.)

I know now I was an introvert.
Everything about school was the opposite of what I needed
or wanted
I had no idea why I balked
Every day
Every year
against going in
(My poor dear mother)
Stomach aches
I’m no doctor
(Nor do I play one on tv)
but I assume my anxiety manifested
in these physical symptoms
I knew missing classes meant making up the work
With little support
I knew
I still couldn’t make myself go in
So many days
(a third of one school year)


I never knew the school even had a guidance counselor
til I dropped out
THEN I had to see them.

Seriously – how did no one ever do anything?

At all?

I was still in all advanced placement classes
I still never got a grade below a B minus
I never flunked a test
I still scored well over 90% in the achievement tests
I still got into that damned useless CLP
I still got a National Merit Scholarship
(had no idea what it meant)
I still did damn well on my SAT’s
(Even if there was stuff on the math part
I’d never seen before in my life –
How did I completely escape trig?)
(And despite the fact I didn’t even know
what the SAT’s WERE until I was shunted into
a PSAT prep class)
This was all despite you
Not because of you

Then I went to art school.
I could easily have gone elsewhere.
I had no idea what my options really were
because – surprise – not a soul ever lifted a finger
to point me in any direction whatsoever.
But I hadn’t changed
Still an introvert, if better at it
And teachers were the same
The loud ones got the attention
Am I a good artist?
No one ever said either way
Was it worth pursuing an art career?
I haven’t picked up a pencil in months
if not years
Never mind a brush

I coulda had class
I coulda been a contender
I could’ve been somebody
instead of a biller for this stupid company
Which is what I am


With one single teacher
Lifting a finger
Showing a particle of care
Showing they noticed I existed
beyond the piece of paper I was handing in
or the extra work I was causing
Maybe I could have flourished
Become a great novelist
(Very likely not a great poet
I mean, look at this)
Made a splash in the art world
Become a historian
A librarian
Someone somewhere buried in books
Happily archiving or researching or compiling or collating
Or something

I read about great teachers
Teachers who took time
Teachers who noticed
Teachers who cared
Based on my own experience, though,
they’re mythical creatures
(perhaps cryptids)
Skunk ape
My teachers were more along the lines of
I never
had a single teacher
express the slightest sign
they gave a damn.
I’d remember.
It would stand out.

Every time I see one of those bumper stickers
“If you can read this, thank a teacher”
I want to ram the car
at full speed
I can read
(Sometimes fiction about great teachers)
Thanks to my mother.
She’s probably the only reason I didn’t open a vein at sixteen
I think I put her through a special hell
She took the brunt of the schools’ disapproval
And never told me
She had no notion of introversion
(She was one of eleven children –
She hated being alone)
She supported me no matter what
Which is how I know it’s supportive teachers
and not supportive people in general
which are the mythical beasts

Teachers did impact me
Like bullets
Like sledgehammers
Like golfball-sized hail
Like a bus
Like a wrecking ball

“Thank a teacher”
I’m nothing if not open to suggestion
Thanks for forcing me to find my own way
Not sure it made me a better
or stronger
But it taught me to …
… not trust anyone
… not rely on anyone
… not bother asking for help
… withdraw further
… do for myself
How’s that?
Thanks for … for the paucity
of information I actually wound up with
after all those years
I didn’t score Jeopardy auditions
Because of anything you ever did
(I doubt any of you taught me
the word “paucity”)
I have
without your help
yet because of you
learned what an autodidact is
Not what was meant?
Well, this one’s not sarcastic
Maybe that will be better
For making me appreciate my mother more
and more
Every day
Every year

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3 Responses to A challenge from NPR

  1. I’m sorry that in the sea of horrid, not one gem found you and helped. I had three teachers in the mass of those who made life worse. They made all the difference. Your mother is a gift. I’m so glad you had her. I’m so glad you survived. Thank you for sharing this raw pain with your beautiful words.

  2. stewartry says:

    A compliment on my stab at writing means a lot coming from you! Thank you. I hope it wasn’t too whiny – I just always get very cranky when teachers are depicted as angelic saviors of the universe. There are some, absolutely … so I hear!

  3. Pingback: Happy World Teachers Day! | Stewartry

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