The Poet Passes the Torch

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IT was eighth-grade typing class and suddenly I could sense it, looming behind me - a presence, almost a radiation - and I knew I was caught. The typing teacher reached over and yanked my paper from the roller and walked to the front of the room. I could detect the silent laughter of my classmates: ``Steven's gonna get it now!'' I had been writing poetry since I was nine. But it was a private act; I kept the writing to myself. Poetry was like a secret I was not prepared to share. But now as a junior high school student I had the desire to see my little handwritten scraps in proper printed lines like a real poet. So I began smuggling them into typing class in my notebook and, when everyone else was practicing the dreary ``quick brown fox jumped over the fuzzy blue fence,'' I'd sneak a poem onto the typing stand and commence ``publishing.''

The typing teacher stood beside her desk reading my typescript and then, with the flick of her hand, summoned me to the front. ``What's this?'' she demanded. (Was this a trick question? I thought it was obvious what ``this'' was.) Because I could think of no safer answer, I responded quietly: ``It's a poem.'' ``Whose poem is it?'' ``It's mine.'' Her voice now seemed to lose some of its edge. ``Do you have others?'' she wanted to know. ``Lots. A drawer full,'' I told her, perhaps a little diffidence in my voice.

Right then, this teacher did something that, I've come to see, changed my life in two dramatic ways. First, she gave me permission to bring my poems to typing class. While all the other students had to plow through the cryptic touch-typing exercises, I had the great luxury of turning my poems into print. Her only condition was that at the end of each class I'd let her read the new poem. I don't remember her even commenting on them, yet her attention was the highest form of praise.

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This was the first time I became a ``public'' poet. There was a pleasure in the experience, and a fear - and something mysterious I couldn't put a name to.

The second way this teacher changed my life: I never learned to type! Because I couldn't bear errors in my beloved text I stared down at the keys and used only my three nimblest fingers. Even now as I type this story, my finger trio stumbling across the keyboard, I stop to laugh and remember my typing teacher's face.

Her face, not her name - somehow the imprint of her name is missing from my memory. But I remember quite clearly the way she made me feel worthy, unique. It was never in her job description to nurture the young poets of Junior High 59 in New York City yet, in one teacherly gesture, she made a difference in my life. And now as a visiting poet in schools I've come to think that the primary quality in all the good teachers I've worked with is the desire to make a difference in someone's life.

Which brings me to the purpose of this, my closing essay in the ``Poet in the Classroom'' series. We've carried on a conversation all year about language and imagination and the ways a poem can transform our experience of the world. This is much the same as I'd do when I visit any classroom. And likewise, there always comes the time when I have to move on - leaving the teacher with the provocative question: ``Now who's the Poet in the Classroom?'' If this experiment with poetry was just a novelty the poet brought with him when he arrived and carried off at the end, both student and teacher will be left with a hollow that's difficult to fill.

On the other hand, if you are now the ``Poet in your Classroom'' then there will always be pleasure in the labor and anticipation of the next creation. If you are a teacher who is committed to making a difference - and I'm not referring only to the ``teachers'' who work in schools - then you can find in these discussions a great variety of paths for your exploration to take.

There is no way of guessing what you will discover as you work through your poems or how much they will come to mean to you. But one thing is true: If you are not actively engaged in such a journey, there is no way you can inspire a young person to journey on his or her own. It's perfectly fine if, in this literary territory, you are a pure beginner. But whatever terrain your poems reveal inside you, this place will provide you with the pleasure of discovery and the tools to learn (and even teach!) the poet's work.

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