Why I sometimes loved to teach

I taught English Comp for a couple of years at a community college in New Jersey. Right, I was an Adjunct. Mostly it was drudgery done in the name of not enough money.

But every so often a miracle occurred. Something marvelous happened.

I don’t recall why I did this, but I know I wanted to see how the students handled poetic form. I handed out two poems, two sonnets, and asked the kids to respond to one of them in one page of their own devising. Sometimes I got what I call the Duh Response. Sometimes I got one sentence (grading those was too easy). And then I might be amazed. These kids figured there had to be a right answer, but there really wasn’t…except honest reactions, even if they were confused. This was one of the poems, by Ted Berrigan:

PEARL HARBOR DAY (Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983)

Seurat and Juan Gris combine this season
to outline Central Park in geometric
trillion pointed bright red-brown and green-gold
blocks of blooming winter. Trees stand stark-
naked guarding bridal paths like Bowery
Santa Clauses keeping Christmas-safe each city block.
Thus I, red-faced and romping in the wind
Whirl through mad Manhattan dressed in books
looking for today with tail-pin. I
never place it right, never win. It
doesn’t matter, though. The cooling wind keeps blow-
ing and my poems are coming.
Except at night. Then
I walk out in the bleak village and look for you.

I didn’t expect explication. I don’t even know what the poem “means,” word by word, image by image. I wanted honest reaction. Juan Gris? Georges Seurat? Pourquoi?

One of the kids, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, wrote feverishly. When I read it over…let’s say I’m sorry I had to hand it back to her. It was glorious. She wrote (I paraphrase): “I was confused by it. But I got to the last lines where he says he went out looking for a woman. I could see him. And I felt like he was looking for me.”

I was as close to tears as I’ve ever been in a classroom. She didn’t understand the poem but she got it at a visceral level, probably the level Ted Berrigan, that sacred madman, was at when he wrote it. I wrote down her grade and a comment: “He went out looking for you, and it was you who he found. And most of all, you found him.” She’d written the most beautiful and heart-perfect response I could imagine. Or could not imagine.

We put so much stock in parsing lines. We rarely weigh feeling and reader response. Response has been my obsession for years. I responded to need by learning to write poetry. And I sensed a need in this young lady, a need Berrigan met. And a need in him that she could satisfy.

That’s why I had moments when teaching was an almost physical act, a form of lovemaking. Damn, but I could love it!

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