211. To Be of Use: Marge Piercy

Last week was the first day of school, so, belatedly, I’d like to remind you of this old post: 105. First Day at School: Roger McGough.  As these posts tend to be more-or-less timeless once posted, this might not make sense in your time-scheme, but the video is worth the click.

Along with the start of school, our superintendent kicks off our supervisory union’s annual gathering with a poem.  I hate this, but that’s because I have a knee-jerk reaction towards anything calculatingly twee.  You’d think I would be glad–poetry!–but I don’t believe our super is a fan.  I suspect there is an intellectual cache involved, but that says more about me than her, I suspect.

But the poem she chose was quiet appropriate: Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use”.  Some of the audience scoffed a bit, noting that, as our boss, she WOULD like us better if we put our shoulder to the wheel every waking moment.  That, I feel, is a misinterpretation.  This is not about work, but attitude.  


My career has been spent trying to deflect negative energy.  As a skeptic and critic, I tend to be the one who sits in meetings and hacks at initiatives.  Oddly, it comes from romantic impulses–I want things to succeed, so I attack the weak points before the roll-out so that fixes can come earlier and in private.  From the outside, it can seem negative.  I’m the teacher who makes a paper bleed, and when a student asks why I hated it I reply, “You got a B-plus–above the standard–and if you fix these things you’ll attain greatness.”  Misunderstood, and perhaps with reason.

We are, though, surrounded by negative people.  

Deeply negative people.  

One sort are the truly negative–nothing will work and they are practically insulted that anyone would even try to make things better.  The more insidious ones, though, are those who generate positivity, yet see any criticism as a torpedo.  Recently, our Essential Skills program came under fire from the board and they were asked to demonstrate success.  I suggested pulling some data that showed progress, but the mere suggestion that the success of the program even needed defending was taken as betrayal.  What makes these people so dangerous is they make any questioner into an enemy, poisoning the goodwill of a group.

I know it comes from fear, but sometimes don’t care.  Who has the energy?  It’s bad enough batting down a hundred negative students and their parents–I don’t need it from my colleagues!

Here, Piercy writes about the lightning caught in a bottle.  I see it like that.  Energy.  Potential energy, ready to spring, but even before you let it out it’s clear that there is probably more energy in that bell jar than anyone has an ability to harness.  

It’s something I’d like to aspire to.

With your students, you might talk about their “hopes and dreams”.  In my head, it sounds sappy whenever I use the term.  So be it.  By returning to “hopes and dreams” time and again, I find classroom management problems are mitigated because a) there is a focus, b) students feel I am listening.  Why, after all, are they here?  Hopes and dreams provides the start of an answer.

More direct to this poem, who are the models for their own lives?  An idol is one who has blazed a path a person wants to travel.  What are the characteristics of those people?  Do your students see them in this poem?  Is it any wonder why Ms. Piercy loves them the best?

And that energy is contagious.

Note: Two good links you might want to pursue. First, a look at Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs”. Check out the Wikipedia entry here, but, basically, he modeled it after healthy, successful people (like Ms. Piercy looks to here). Second, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code–I can’t recommend this book enough.  It dovetails off of Gladwell’s “Outliers” book, but is more applicable and less scattershot (in the end, I found little in Gladwell that would guide me towards a growth mindset classroom).

To Be of Use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.


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