A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
If my nine-year-old son behaves in any manner contrary to the rules and regulations by which humankind has agreed to conduct itself since the day we got civilized and invented Ivory soap, Dr. Pepper, and the electric chair, I’ll find out. Because third-grade teachers function by the when-in-doubt, tell-the-Mom strategy of controlling student behavior, my son can commit no sin without coming home weighed down by the note his teacher will have emphatically zippered into the lower pocket of his backpack. She’ll either write a description of my son’s behavior on a sheet of yellow paper, or she’ll check it off on the pre-printed form. This form lists the most common offenses—Disputes Authority, Is Disruptive, Uses Profanity, Writes on Desk, Falls Backward in Chair—practiced every day by children in elementary schools all across America.
I don’t want to make fun of my son’s teacher. Standing behind the bright orange bulletin board in my borrowed janitor’s uniform, I’ve spied on her and people like her for years. I’ve seen the trauma she must endure in order to make a living. She’ll be standing there trying to talk about the difference between the pupa and the larvae and the boys will be trying to determine, on a scale of one to ten, which girls have the worst cooties. Or she’ll be getting all tired in her limbs from reading, aloud and with feeling, The Best Loved Poems of Robert Frost, and the girls will be covering up their giggles with their fingertips because of their accurate and hilarious depictions, drawn in their English books, of zoo animals with breasts.
No, I am not here to make fun of my son’s teacher. I want, instead, to talk about the rules. I endorse the laws of the land like do not drive your car one-hundred-and-thirty-seven-miles-an-hour on this highway or ever and do not steal your neighbor’s television set or horse. But as for the rules?
I’m against them.
Last year a college security guard criticized me, in a very loud and frightening voice, when he saw my children playing with little blue plastic boats in the swimming pool. Such toys, the guard said, were against the rules. Then I parked my car facing campus on a road on which all cars are supposed to be looking the other way. (And we’re not in Manhattan or Houston, please understand: my campus is rural.) The guard told me to turn my car around. When I asked him why because I honestly didn’t know, he told me that I couldn’t park my car backwards because backwards-parking was against the rules.
Three weeks into the summer I taught tenth grade English, I decided—because I had seen how my colleagues got their thrills—that I would never again teach in the public schools. The people I taught with used to get all excited if they “caught one smoking” and used to keep score, in little black notebooks, of how many baseball caps they’d confiscated. They used to make students stay in school for the entire three hour late-afternoon make-up period if they were just one minute late for class because those were—you guessed it—the rules.
If I saw one of my students smoking, little wagon-wheel spikes of pain would spread out inside my ribs, of course. I’d think about the various addictions and their causes like the universal wound of human isolation adolescence begins, maybe hormonally, to open up, and wish I could be the kind of teacher you see in movies like To Sir, With Love and The Man Without a Face. I would long terribly to take my students home with me and teach them…just teach them something that would make them forever happy and good and wise and healthy. But I wouldn’t say anything about the cigarettes. And I wouldn’t appropriate the headgear.
At the time I understood that I was not like the other people who taught in that school, but beyond the fact of my flowered peasant dresses and my clunky silver jewelry, I didn’t know why. Then I remembered a story my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child. She even told it again—as if to advise me for the last time on how best to live my life—on her deathbed.
My grandmother was a student at Emory & Henry College in Southwest Virginia during the 1920’s. At that time in the history of the college, women were not allowed to wear pants or dance. But once during her days at Emory, when the president was out of town, she and her friends (a group that included the president’s brother) stole into the president’s house, pulled back the rugs, took off their shoes, and did the Charleston until two in the morning. Remembering this story made me realize that, though I have never been fired or spent a night in jail or been investigated by the FBI or had to stand trial for either a misdemeanor or a felony, I’m a natural-born rule-breaker.
I broke the wait-for-the-right-time rule by going to college at the age of sixteen, the be-reasonable-if-you’re-smart rule by getting married at twenty, and the give-your-youth-a-chance-rule by having my first child two years later. Then I broke the trust-the-experts rule by giving birth at home. Then I broke the please-be-decent rule by breastfeeding for two years and, when necessary, in public. Then I broke the don’t-upset-your-Mother-in-Law rule by practicing the bond-with-your-baby tenants outlined in the only two books I cared to read during those years: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and The Family Bed.
Now I break the rules of the neighborhood by refusing to mow my lawn when I’m supposed to, the rules of fashion by wearing sandals in February, and the for-married-women rules of possession and decorum by keeping my maiden name. I break the rules of grammar by ending my sentences in prepositions and by starting them with conjunctions like “and” and “but.” And, even though their word choices might offend my own mother, I break the rules of parenting by letting my children speak their own minds. Sometimes I even let them stay up late. Sometimes the next morning I even let them skip school because they’re so tired from staying up the night before or because we’ve all the got the urge to go fishing or hang out together on the fold-out bed in the living room and read Alice In Wonderland in one sitting.
My problem with the rules is that they too often throw common sense out the window. My problem with the rules is that they can sometimes subvert justice. They just make too many assumptions. They assume that the world is always hot or cold, black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. They assume that we are all either Democratic or Republican, Communist or KKK, scrambled or fried, white or wheat, fat or thin, wild or anal. They fail to keep the weather in mind. They seem to want to deny the importance—the absolute necessity—of experience. They are anti-instinct, anti-impulse, and anti-fun. They are one-dimensional. They stifle and subdue both the head and the heart.
And it’s not that I’d be happy to discover that my children were defacing public property or doing anything else that would get them time in the state penitentiary. It’s not that I want my sons to be untrained homo sapiens unsure of when to put their napkins on their laps instead of their heads. It’s not even that I want to change the no-toys-in-the-pool rule or park my car backwards as a matter of course. But the old saying has it right: the rules were made to be broken.
Recently my son brought home a note informing me that he had sung during reading time. The note assumed that I’d be upset that my son had sung during reading-time and that I would punish him for it by eliminating T.V. for a week or by making him sleep in the dog house. Well, I wasn’t and I didn’t. In the first place, I know that punishment only works if it is handed down immediately after the wickedness has been committed, and, in the second, I had done the very same thing myself that very same week.
My students and I were discussing the end of modernism, let’s say. We were talking about the difference between the iamb and the spondee or the viability of this –ism or that. But the birds outside the window in the classroom wouldn’t stop chattering. And the sunlight wouldn’t stop illuminating the tiles on the floor. You couldn’t help but notice it. You couldn’t help but think of the wide open, greening fields out there somewhere—of the fat deer and the tail-wagging skunks nudging their new babies with their little black noses. You couldn’t help but remember the way Winne-the-Pooh would dip his paw into the jar of honey. I stopped whatever it was I was saying and sang: the wonderful thing about Tigger is Tigger’s a wonderful thing—his top is made out of rubber, his bottom is made out of string. He’s bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, he’s fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. The wonderful thing about Tigger is he’s the only one!
Most of my students looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I smiled at them. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Don’t you know that song?”
One of them raised her hand. “I know it,” she said, “but it’s been forever since I’ve thought about Tigger.”
“He makes you kind of want to dance,” another one said.
I thought of my grandmother standing on the hardwood floor of the President’s house. I thought of her holding her dress up two or three inches, of her freeing her legs and ankles and feet in the spring warmth of some night almost a hundred years ago. I thought of her pulling back my hair and holding it at the nape of my neck so she could look directly into my eyes while she talked, of her telling that story and others like it while she lay flat on her back on her deathbed. I thought of the grief I’ve had to bear every single second since she died resting like a fat stone at the bottom of my heart. I thought also of those high school students getting punished for doing nothing more than trying to learn how to live in a place that couldn’t help but hurt you, of having to learn everyday all about the cost of being human—the way we all must suffer failure and death and the loss of love.
“If we had any sense at all,” I told that student as I looked out the window toward the swelling spring, “dance is exactly what we’d do.”
“If we had any sense,” he repeated, pointing at the clock hanging on the wall behind me and then the students who had already stuffed their novels and notebooks into their backpacks. “But don’t you know we don’t?”
Copyright 2017 Adrian Blevins