44. For My Students

Press “play” to listen.

10 September 2022, 11:40

I was born on a Thursday, early in the morning, in a hospital in Portland, Oregon. Ellen, my mom, labored for long hours through the night before the doctors decided I would not be a natural birth— “[Matthew] was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped” (Macbeth, V.8). Paul, my dad, could not hold me in his arms because he had a bad rash from poison oak that would not have been kind to a baby’s skin. It was 27 July 1995. (You do the math.)

I started school young, remaining the shortest and smallest kid in my grade until puberty and high school. In Ms. Heagh-Avritt’s second-grade class, I wrote a poem. Barbara, my gramma, got me into the Oregon Student Poetry Contest, where I performed “Loose Tooth.” Won an honorable mention.

I had a pleasant time at West Union Elementary School. Learned arithmetic, cursive, reading, &c. Had a few friends: Kevin K., Joseph S., Matthew L.

Mine was a religious household. Dad was the youth pastor at our church. Got baptized when I was ten years old.

Elbow Lake, 2006

Then it was middle school, which was less than pleasant. Full of drama and awkwardness. Mr. Thacker taught me algebra and geometry; he made it fun and entertaining. Ms. Pettis taught me history and poetry. I had a crush on a girl named Noé. I picked a flower and gave it to her, with a note.

Next, the big leagues: high school. Stopped taking piano lessons and spent all my free time playing sports. Soccer, swimming, baseball, cross country, wrestling, golf, track and field. Curtis joined our family in 2009 when I was a freshman. He was a junior, older, and way bigger than me. We had issues in the beginning, but things became much better over time.

Christmas, 2009

Some folks from my church traveled to Tijuana, México, every summer to build a small house for a family without one. The first time I went was the summer after fifth grade. I woke up one morning with over seventy mosquito bites all over my body. Dad gave me two Benadryl, and I fell asleep on a stack of sheetrock amidst hammers, saws, and shouting. I kept going most summers from then on.

Tijuana, MX, 2010

In high school, I was mainly interested in computers, engineering, math, science, sports, and Jesus. (Only one of these things interests me, now.) I worked hard for my grades, mainly earning As and a few Bs. (One C, from senior year, when I did not try as hard because I was tired and wanted to graduate.)

Liberty High School, 2013

I spent the summer after high school playing Skyrim in my parent’s basement, much to the annoyance of my dad. Video games were only a waste of time to him. I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, for undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at Oregon State University. After a year of calculus and the impending doom of advanced physics, I gave up on that major. Was “undecided” for a term, then found myself in a place I had not expected: studying English literature. I had always liked reading and writing but never thought much about it as a field of study. A year later, I added a major in education to the mix, and my future was cemented. I was to become a teacher.

But first, a study-abroad in Querétaro, México, to improve my Spanish. It was the spring of 2016. Three months. Learned more of the language in that short time than I did in four years of learning in a classroom in the U.S. Took a weekend vacation in Cancún while there.

Cancún, MX, 2016

Back to America. After two more years at OSU, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Arts in Education. Magna Cum Laude and about $30,000 of debt at which I was to start chipping away. (If you can make college free, do it. The government decided I did not deserve help because my parents could afford to pay my way. They paid for part; the rest was on me.)

Corvallis, OR, 2018

Instead of applying for public high school jobs like all my peers were doing, I took an offer from a recruiter to teach English at Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College. Spent the summer beforehand reading up on China and decompressing after five years of stress and hair loss. Then a long flight to a foreign land. It was a wild nine months.

Shanghai, 2018
Teacher and Students

China was a learning experience. I would have stayed, except that I missed my family and friends. Also, air pollution, authoritarianism, internet censorship, and a lack of religious freedom took their toll. Back to America, again. I taught Grade 7 Math and Social Studies for a year in Milwaukie, Oregon. At the tail end, schools closed because of the pandemic. My younger brother, Christopher, graduated from Luther College in Iowa with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. He and I moved to a suburb of Seattle, Washington. He started working as a hospital nurse. I could not land a school-teaching position, so I resorted to private tutoring. My students consisted of three second-graders, four fifth-graders, one sixth-grader, two eighth-graders, and one tenth-grader. It was kind of cool, actually. I learned to value one-on-one and small group teaching, in stark contrast to having a roster of twenty or thirty students.

I felt stuck, though. Two bachelor’s degrees and a couple of years of experience in education did not seem to attract the attention of principals. I decided to go back to school. Started applying and was soon accepted into the M.A. in English program at New York University. Could not turn down an opportunity in the Big Apple. So, in August of 2021, I drove across the country in five days and moved into my new apartment in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn, 2021

The plan was to attend NYU full-time and find a part-time job to pay the bills. (Also, to take on more massive-feeling loans.) I applied to a few schools in the area, just in case. To my surprise, I was offered a full-time position at the High School for Global Citizenship to teach English Language Arts. I accepted. The rest is history in the making.

I teach. I study. This is my life—no time for anything else. But I am learning, which is all that really matters. I move forward.

How did you get here? Where are you going?

35. Read Aloud

10 January 2022, 20:08

Stop the clock. What do I want? Where am I going? I turn thirty in three-and-a-half years. Bang, I’m living on and on into eternal life. Age is just a number. I feel old and gray; I’m bald, and I want a girl to have and hold. Made the standard profiles: a few pictures and a boring biography that means nothing to nobody. You gotta pay to see the matches. You gotta show a little something to get the swipe. Bummer. Can one be sexy and modest at the same time? Is that a real place, where I want you, but I’m willing to wait and see? Clap, clap clap, clap, clap clap—this is the life.

No more typing till my fingers bleed. Never have bled that way. My father pushes my buggy frame through the single door. He could have opened the double, and I would have scampered in without a fight. I cannot walk backward. More random words inspired by my real life that no one will understand because they do not live in my skin. Wear it, please. See inside of me. No more you, only me. Me! ME! MEEEE! On a bed in a “luxury” apartment built in 2016 (I was 21, then, and recently able to imbibe but not wanting to except after the only breakup—if you can call it that—I’ve ever had) is where I sleep. The mattress is cramped, but my feet do not hang off the end. Lay with me. Sleep deep and reap the grapes of fortune. I cannot decide.

How many more songs? How many more minutes are in this album? On the twelfth day of Christmas, it was a Sunday. I was a fool. I sit here, writing, to tell you of my foolishness. I went to school and read what they said. Now, I am the say-er. I walk through Times Square, playing games on my knuckles. I wanna punch and break my bones. Wanna feel something, one time. One more time. Again, why do I care? What do I want? Who am I becoming? I feel bad about what I said, you know; I take it all back. I should never have revealed my thoughts. I should have wrapped them up in burlap and burned them with the other burdens I laid on you. Fool! Rhaka (ῥακά) upon myself—there is nothing in my head. Empty.

Let’s go swimming. If I had hair, I would wear a cap. My spine twists and rants at the dying of the light. At close of day, I will pray. When I am about to breathe my last, I will ask God for mercy and plead for heaven. Until then, my way. I am underground already; I cannot be found. I have removed all the hair from my body, except the eyebrows. Without the eyebrows, it might as well be AIDS. Need those eyebrows. Need ‘em… give them to me! I met a man who lived on cocktails. Without them, he would have died twenty years ago. Thank the Lord for modern medicine, he says. I’m living on borrowed time.

To know what I mean, one must understand the difference between literal and figurative language. One already knows, I assume. Without proper evidence, I have formed a conclusion about the reader: she is uninterested in me. Is this real life? We three thieves of orient are on our way to a clown show. I have seen my face in the curved brass of the trombone. My forehead and eyes are racing into the distance. My nose is like an ornament on the tree I had to imagine having because I live in Brooklyn, and it is cold outside. My chin is fashioned to a point, like the icicles growing up from the ground. Daisy Mae, when will the daisies arrive?

Hey, what a way to spend an evening? Tomorrow, I will bash my brains against the torrent of dislocated ninth graders, the zombies, the late arrivals, the absentees, the jumped and afraid to come to school, the violently beautiful whiteys and brownies with fake smiles, the real ones, the dope-sellers who make more money than me, the materialistic sons-of-single-mothers, the residents of Flatbush, Crown Heights, &c. They will interrupt me again and again. They will refuse to hear because I am not like them, and they are not like me. What is the point?

I prefer the cage. Fight me. Muscle your way up into the sky. Fly with no wings, human. God did not mean for us to join him in the air. There is a shortage of air. Breathe easy, leave some for the rest of us. Actions speak loudly, but her lack of words is even more compelling. If we’re so free, why am I afraid? Why will my life never amount to more than spent cosmic energy? All these atoms rubbing against each other, causing miniature explosions. I will diminish. Come to your senses, child, and go to sleep. Rest easy in the bed with room enough for your short legs. It is likely we will never cross paths again. When you see me, I will pretend not to see you. Endure in the face of wild men who hiss at their sons and stomp the ground out of fear. That is not my son. That is ungeheuren Ungeziefer—a monstrous vermin. An ambiguous translation. Get me out of here. Banish me to the end credits. Put on your green dress, baby, and dance for me. Make me remember why I am here and where I am going. I’ll do anything you don’t say.

This hasn’t been your day. He never touched me, either. Not that I wanted him to, one knows. I’ll be thirty, thin, neat, and alone. People will assume things about me, but I’ll lay the pistol down. Go ahead; you are not the one about which I am thinking. Her name is Daisy Mae, and she is dying. She has the perfect form. She is the Platonic ideal. I have seen her; she lays with me. We live and die together, into eternal death. Until Jesus comes again. Baby, I am bound by his love. He is the only one who knows me. He wears my skin. He is not in my heart. He did not sacrifice himself for my sins. It is so much bigger than that. He is not in control; no one is. There are no levers left to pull. I cannot move the world, so why bother? The world moves me, baby. And I will come back to this, years from now; I will decide whether to hang onto the file. Or I will sweep it into the recycling bin with the rest of my crumpled-up dreams, never seen, never lived, never made into movies or musicals. Tik Tok goes the clock—dot, dot, dot, BOOM! Such a bad ending. They could have resolved it better. I AM UNSATISFIED.

Do you mean to say he died the morning of its first preview performance? Do you mean he never got to see what he accomplished? Better dead, I guess, than to live on and be famous. I want no one to know my name. I want to be left alone. I am Outis (Οὖτις). Call me by your name, Nemo. Denounce me, Poe, like you denounced H. W. Longfellow in the Evening Mirror. I only had one eye, but the raging lunatic poured the wine, and I kept drinking. Then, his men pierced me with the red-hot timber, and now I cannot see. My father will avenge this evil deed if only he ceases his hissing and stomping. Read this aloud. Whisper and shout. Go to bed, baby, and wake me in the morning.

Inverted, again

34. The Edge

3 October 2021, 14:59

Crouching on the very edge
I will say
That the Bible could be entirely
Made up
And when I die, I might become
Food for worms
And nothing more.

I do not believe this is true
Or at least
I have to hope with all my marrow
That it is not
For if I slipped off this edge
It would be
Into a dark and dreary chasm
Of uncertainty.

Hell, I am already uncertain
Of most things
Save for this—
     Verum esse ipsum factum
     What is true is what
     Is made
     We are real not because we
     Observe reality
     But because we, image-bearers
     Invent reality
     In great waves of poetry.
Between buildings

33. Student, Teacher

24 September 2021, 16:47

I broke up a fight today. Welcome to Brooklyn. I broke up a boy beating a girl. Beating her into lockers, beating her arms, and beating her face. I broke it up by wrapping my arms around the boy and turning him into my empty classroom. I let go of him, and he sat in the chair behind my desk.

“This is why I don’t come to school!”

I spoke to him calmly and told him to breathe. I asked if he could maybe tell me what happened. He didn’t say much. His friend walked in.

“Are you Gucci?” asked the friend.

“Yeah, I’m Gucci. Man, this is why I don’t come to school.”

I wanted to get in his face. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout profanity, and I wanted to be silent. Then he left my room and paced away as if nothing had happened. The girl had been wrenched into another classroom by security. She was shouting. She was injured, and the other staff called for a nurse.

Welcome to Brooklyn. Funny smells and garbage everywhere. Lots of people who don’t look like me. Lots of people who don’t speak like me. Two hurricanes in my first two weeks being here. I arrived on 15 August, so it has been over a month now. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Just keep moving forward. This is a linear exercise. You don’t need to think to write. Just move your fingers. Just move your fingers until something comes out. Hey, you’re stopping. No, just read and write and write and read and listen to the jazz—the trumpet and the drums and the piano. FREEWRITE until things start to make sense and the garbage in your head is safely on the page where it cannot infect your head.

I am experiencing stress. So much to do. So many emails and PowerPoint slides and papers and things to take care of. No resolution or time to breathe. Barely time to eat lunch. I am behind, and the school is remembering how to do things in person. It is a slow process, one for which I am trying to give myself grace. Act like you know what you’re doing. Act like it’s acting school, and you are your own coach. (I’ve never been to acting school.) Keep acting and step into the fight when…

“Well, we can’t let them kill each other. But if you get hurt by intervening, then the union is next in line to ask questions.”

Welcome to Donne’s world of canonizations, songs about impossible tasks like catching stars and impregnating mandrake roots, and of triple fools. Welcome to your first class at the prestigious New York University, a class on poetics and the landscape of literary theory. Emphasis on the theory; more of a side note, really, on the poems. Remind me—what are the theories worth studying? Which are in vogue? Is it Formalism or New Criticism? Not the former, but remnants are doing the latter. Is it structuralism or post-structuralism? Aporia (eureka!)—he’s a skeptic, wanting counsel and questioning everything. Burning the system and waiting until the last second to exit the flaming vehicle of deconstruction. Is there anything valuable about this way of thinking? If one never bothers to rebuild, does it not, soon after, devolve into chaos and anarchic interpretations?