The Downstairs Press
ELFRIEDE’S CAT, Notes of a High School Literature Teacher
Scarecrow Press • Lanham, MD • 2003
For almost as long as I taught children I sought out a way to write about my experiences, about what I was learning as I reentered the classroom, now on the other side of the teacher’s desk. Late in that game, sometime around the mid-nineties, I began writing prose poems about the daily events of my teaching life. The prose poem form, with its informality of structure but its attention to pace and rhythm, image and metaphor, felt somehow salutary for these vignettes about what sometimes goes on in a classroom dedicated to literature and writing.
What happens when we learn? A light bulb blinking above our
head? A score on a quiz or a letter printed on a report card mailed
home? Is it like stepping from the shaky gangplank of the ship
that carried us here. onto firm, dry land? Or like remembering
that man who was good to me when I was six and ran away
from home to see what the world across the railroad tracks
might have to offer?
Perhaps learning is the natural form of our breathing. Perhaps
we have been holding our breath too long.
Remember the dream you had one night? You turned a familiar
corner and the landscape spread away from you in endless and
surprising detail. Or the story your heard once and could never
forget about a white horse that could fly?
Children need stories, stories in the old sense. Tales a little
edgy and mysterious. I can quiet any classroom, any group of
kids no matter how distracted or angry, by telling them the
story of the princess who cures her father’s, the king’s,
blindness. Two sentences into the narrative, a hush falls around
us that could be mistaken for happiness. What I love about
these moments is they remind me how much I attend to these
stories, how much I need them even after fifteen or twenty years into
this teaching life.
Learning just might be a willingness to pay attention to that
stranger, the one waiting across the street under the lamp’s
glow, until finally, you recognize yourself, growing wings and
pawing the dirt at the edge of the sidewalk.