172. Alphabet: Catherine French

We are reaching near chaos–the social meltdowns just before the spring checkout.

My classroom is a 7-8 multi-age. My seventh graders are dating, which ranges from texting each other to say they are dating to behavior that makes me blush (or so I hear even as I don’t ask). At the moment, there is drama. There is drama because they will not go outside and move, yet are full of pent up energy that acts like a dream deferred. There is drama because they won’t talk to each other, or talk too much. They can not interpret, and in each mix is someone who has trouble with nuance, sarcasm, subtext and simple comprehension. There is not impulse control.

In short, they are middle-schoolers.

This storm precedes the look forward. Our eighth graders are intellectually thinking of moving on to high school, but as the weather has remained cold their focus is still in my classroom. I can hold the center, but only until April break.

So in May I have students look back. We review the first grade curriculum (we are a K-8 building) and move through a “best of” reflection. We question everything they did, from walking in lines to the books they read. Out to the playground we go.  It is a nostalgia trip that doubles as a lesson and triples as crowd control.

French’s poem is about the change education makes. At this moment, our eighth graders are reading “Of Mice and Men” as part of my “Are You Reading for Ninth Grade” unit. I’m teaching them formal criticism–historical, biographical, gender, economic….–and after each I ask the question: Does this help you understand the text? The answers are mixed, but then I ask them: Can you ever think of the novel the same way again? They say they cannot.

You can never rebelieve in Santa the same way again once you know it’s your dad. In that way it’s sad.  But once a kid learns something, they can’t go back to ignorance. It might make them terribly unhappy, but our job is not to make them happy.  That, for me, is a happy thing because it means hope.  That’s why I became a teacher, and why most of the students put up with the rest of the stuff we throw at them (no one in their right mind would choose to be a middle-schooler).

With this poem, it might be worth it to review what they have learned, and what they can no longer get back. Then, look ahead: What are their hopes and dreams? When do they want to learn, and how do they get there?

Now do it!

Catherine French

The truth is I dreaded each wide letter
and by extension the aging yellow-white pages
with the standard letter bearers–apple, zebra,
xylophone, coat. These physical counterparts
were secret code I would never crack–the yak,
its matted hair and soulful eyes, destined for slaughter
or a tundra isolation; the ball, untouched
in a sunless backyard, round and red and unattainable;
the blue dress on a white hanger,
freed of the sticky reminder of flesh. I knew
how they failed in that attempted joining
of physical and abstract, how each sound
fell short of the world. But fear gives way
to routine, and routine yields up
its indirection, that sing-song
also a simple path away
until what remains is as unnoticeable
and profound as mother’s heartbeat and blood flow,
those first unviewed x’s, their rhythm beat
into soft flesh as certainly as large black letters
embed into page–the traffic washing by at night,
the crickets speaking like martians, the wind
pushing dried leaves across cement in sudden bursts.
But when I close the book, they are already out
and hanging before me like dizzying hummingbirds,
my own thought refusing to settle or still
to definite line, but unable to return
to full quiet again.


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