Topical Verse: Back to School

The end of my summer is only a couple days away, so in honor of the return of the school year, I give you Tony Hoagland’s “America.” It describes a feeling all teachers have had: dismissing something a student says only to realize that you actually agree. All teaching is learning, but it’s easy to forget this on bad days when the class in front of you seems to exist only to make you feel ignored. You can’t let this diminish the respect you give your students’ ideas though, because you were once that precocious, jaded, vague, insecure, or pretentious student, and you’ve probably changed a lot less than you’d like to believe.


Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison


Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,


And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu


Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels


Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America


And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,


And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money


That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,


He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—


And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—


Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,


And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,


And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:


“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”


But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be


When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river


Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters


And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

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