Aiming High

For one whole week I was the substitute teacher for a fifth grade class here in San Diego. Actually, there was no real class in attendance. They had flown to Virginia to study colonial America. Only three students were left behind, and somebody was needed to work with them.

The school was a “classical academy,” modeled after the rigors of the traditional British prep school and the artes liberales of the Ancients. This translated into a pretty heady curriculum. Since we weren't out touring Williamsburg, we were told to read Jonathan Edwards. Picture the scene yourself: three ten year-olds who had just missed the Rapture, expected to discuss “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” With a substitute teacher who forgot to bring pipe-cleaners and string for the mnemonic device they were supposed to create: a dangling black spider.

Our venture into Puritan poetry was much better. We read Anne Bradstreet's poem "Upon the Burning of Our House.” I went over it slowly, unraveling the hard syntax and clarifying words like “bereft” and “succourless.” Then I gave the suggested assignment: Draw a picture or write a poem about something you once lost.

One girl did a quick scrawl of her dog; the other drew herself saying goodbye to a friend. But the one boy, Austin, wanted to write a poem. Without flinching, he told me he would write about “this boy I knew when I was seven who got killed by a truck.” Like his announcement of this heavy subject, his poem was spare in detail, sober but not sappy, and heroic. He tried to imitate 17th century diction: “The truck did speed” and “In the ground he lies,” and his work embraced Bradstreet's worldview: “I will see him again/In the heavenly mansion on high.”

Austin was smaller and younger than the others, with a sweet face and a sweeter soul, the kind of boy who engages adults earnestly and feeds on their affirmation without guile. As touching as his poem was his eagerness to read it aloud to the other teachers. He typed it up that night (with a few format improvements I'd suggested) and brought it in the next day. He said he'd like to try writing some more poems.

He was a poet all week. He never lost his earnestness, his soul never shrank, but his work did suffer from a certain hurried commercialism. Each day at lunch he called me over to announce that he was going to write another poem. Right then and there. On his napkin. Did I have a pen? And, um, what should he write about? He only had about five minutes.

The readiest advice I had (which was given to me in college) was this: “Write about what you know about.” Austin looked stymied, so I suggested baseball. He had a poem scribbled out before recess. It included the Padres' latest score and the line “Cameron Maybin robs a home run.” There was some fair imagery--“the crack of the bat/There's nothing better than that” and “He throws the ball like a gun.” But the effort was more indicative of a future sports announcer than a great poet. But here was a worthy idea: customized verse. Why not? After all, every young artist needs a patron. Shakespeare had his queen, Bach had his dukes. Austin had me, for the week at least.

With versifying well in hand, Austin turned to a bigger challenge: entire recesses spent shooting a basketball over and over and over from the three-point line. I suggested he move closer to the basket, since he was only making one out of every million shots. But this was overstepping my authority. The point wasn't to make it. The point was to fire away. The idea was to work and hope and hope and work and finally exult in that one elusive moment of pure poetry.

I have Austin's poem in front of me now—not the one about loss (his parents treasure that) but the one about triumph (he typed it off the napkin). In the boy's uneven meter, as Mrs. Bradstreet would say, “There's wealth enough, I need no more.” One perusal of this crumpled page has the power to compose me. It gives the unfolding day balance and form, as surely as any greater artist's preface or prelude to beautiful things.