Ask most any adult, and he or she can tell you a story about a teacher. Sometimes it’s the teacher who inspired them, whose class they loved to walk into each morning. Other times it’s a teacher who, with one swift and devastating line, embarrassed, belittled, or destroyed a fragile kid. That, too, sticks for life.
Here are three poems written by three poets, each channeling the outsized influence and authority of a teacher. “Turtle Came to See Me” is more neutral, “Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School” more negative, and “Ode to Teachers” more positive.
Whatever the emotion, it seems sure that most poets, if put to the task, could find a poem in a schoolroom of their past.
“Turtle Came to See Me”
by Margarita Engle
The first story I ever write
is a bright crayon picture
of a dancing tree, the branches
tossed by island wind.
I draw myself standing beside the tree,
with a colorful parrot soaring above me,
and a magical turtle clasped in my hand,
and two yellow wings fluttering
on the proud shoulders of my ruffled
Cuban rumba dancer’s
In my California kindergarten class,
the teacher scolds me: REAL TREES
DON’T LOOK LIKE THAT.
It’s the moment
when I first
begin to learn
can be wrong.
They have never seen
the dancing plants
Maybe it’s inadvertent, but here an instructor teaches a valuable lesson. At a young age, the speaker learns that adults are not invincible and omniscient. They are imperfect beings subject to the same whims and sins as the rest of us. Though she keeps it to herself, the speaker is the real teacher here. She knows about Cuba’s dancing trees, something completely foreign to the “expert” in the room.
“Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School”
by Jane Kenyon
The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .
Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.
The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.
I love the last line of Kenyon’s poem: “She led me, blinking and changed, back to the class.” Proof positive (once again) that life lessons do not come inside textbooks or across the black and green plains of chalkboards. When injustice is meted out, the student finds succor and epiphanies in a cloakroom. That she hums Haydn and hardens her heart against authority is even better. The reader sings back-up vocals and relates—we’ve all suffered an experience like this before.
“Ode to Teachers”
by Pat Mora
the first day,
how I looked down,
hoping you wouldn’t see
and when I glanced up,
I saw your smile
shining like a soft light
from deep inside you.
“I’m listening,” you encourage us.
Join our conversation,
let us hear your neon certainties,
thorny doubts, tangled angers,”
but for weeks I hid inside.
I read and reread your notes
and you whispered,
“We need you
and your stories
that like a fresh path
will take us to new vistas.”
Slowly, your faith grew
into my courage
and for you—
instead of handing you
a note or apple or flowers—
I raised my hand.
I carry your smile
and faith inside like I carry
my dog’s face,
my sister’s laugh,
the softness of sunrise,
steady blessings of stars,
autumn smell of gingerbread,
the security of a sweater on a chilly day.
A teacher’s faith grows into a student’s courage, and the litany of similes in the final stanza shows just how valuable that can be to an impressionable child. I wish all teachers knew just how enormous the stakes are in their classrooms. This is not punching a time clock work. This is lives, memories, inspirational ripples whose ends teachers will never see but must, at all times, imagine.