Teaching English from an Old Composition Book
My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,
Chip by which I must explain this Monday
Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”
I’m not given much, these tired students,
Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,
Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.
I’m given this room with five windows,
A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,
The music of how we feel as the sun falls,
Exhausted from keeping up.
I stand at
The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,
Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.
By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic
Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”
I pick up a coffee cup and sip.
I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”
I bring an invisible fork to my mouth
And say, “I eat the chicken.”
Suddenly the class is alive—
Each one putting on hats and shoes,
Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers
And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.
At break I pass out cookies.
Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,
“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”
I look at the word in the composition book.
I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.
I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.”
Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend
In the next desk, now smarter by one word.
After the cookies are eaten,
We move ahead to prepositions—
“Under,” “over,” and “between,”
Useful words when la migra opens the doors
Of their idling vans.
At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,
And they’re tired of their roles.
When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,
And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.
I tell them adelante,
And they pick up their old books.
They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”
As they head for the door.
Behind Grandma’s House
At ten I wanted fame. I had a comb
And two Coke bottles, a tube of Bryl-creem.
I borrowed a dog, one with
Mismatched eyes and a happy tongue,
And wanted to prove I was tough
In the alley, kicking over trash cans,
A dull chime of tuna cans falling.
I hurled light bulbs like grenades
And men teachers held their heads,
Fingers of blood lengthening
On the ground. I flicked rocks at cats,
Their goofy faces spurred with foxtails.
I kicked fences. I shooed pigeons.
I broke a branch from a flowering peach
And frightened ants with a stream of spit.
I said “Chale,” “In your face,” and “No way
Daddy-O” to an imaginary priest
Until grandma came into the alley,
Her apron flapping in the breeze,
Her hair mussed, and said, “Let me help you,”
And punched me between the eyes.
Gary Soto has published several books of poetry: The Level at Which the Sky Begins, University of California, 1976; The Elements of San Joaquin, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977; The Tale of Sunlight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978; (With Ernesto Trejo) Como arbustos de Niebla, Editorial Latitudes, 1980; Where Sparrows Work Hard, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981; Black Hair, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985; Who Will Know Us?, Chronicle Books, 1990; Home Course in Religion, Chronicle Books, 1991; Afternoon Memory, Lagniappe Press, 1994; New and Selected Poems, Chronicle Books, 1995; The Sparrows Move South: Early Poems, Bancroft Library Press, 1995; (With John Digby) Super-Eight Movies: Poems, Lagniappe Press, 1996; Junior College: Poems, Chronicle Books, 1997; Shadow of the Plum: Poems, Cedar Hill Publications, 2002; One Kind of Faith, Chronicle Books, 2003; A Simple Plan, Chronicle Books, 2007
His poems have been published in such periodicals and newspapers as Poetry, New York Times Book Review, Parnassus, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Nation, American Book Review, Bloomsbury Review, Booklist, Christian Science Monitor, Denver Quarterly, and many others.