That Teacher, You Know the One

5 Min read

Poetry for Emergencies: E.E. Cummings

On music: J.S. Bach

Commencement speech

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Let’s take a moment for teachers. That teacher, you know the one. Because, I have a confession to make.

In the lottery of life and learning, if you’re lucky then you have one, maybe two but let’s not push it. Oh sure, there’s a slew of teachers who taught me something, even knock-knocked on the old bonehead and managed to get through on occasion.

Mrs. Hershey taught high school English with a passion for words and E.E. Cummings. I can recall her reciting a poem, nearly 40 years ago now, about getting boxed in behind a car and the driver’s attempts to zig and zag and cut others off. Foot on the accelerator, then on the brake, colorful language, jerking the wheel. I don’t remember the lines or the poem, but the title had me from the start.

Ambition

Sad, the things we crave.

I could see her jubilant expression as Hershey leaned forward at the desk and read about the little lame balloonman and how he whistles _______ far________ and wee. In Just- a manner as that, with lots of white space between the word, far, and the words, and wee. Those last two words thisclose.

And, reading along as she recites it is another thing altogether. Read for yourself. Better, recite it aloud with breath in the white spaces and fastreading when words are close, like eddieandbill.

E.E. Cummings poem, In Just-

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I’ve read it many times since and often in my head–as opposed to reciting it—and surely I read it to my children. Though surely I did NOT read it quite like Mrs. Hershey read it.

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Which brings me to my confession. It’s a thing that happens when you age. Death. Odd that spring time when everything is alive and bursting forth, with marbles and piracies, hop-scotch and jump-rope, that we remember the dead.

Saturday I attended a celebration for my daughter’s teacher who unexpectedly and quite suddenly died, Mr. B—. He taught her and my son, and he happened to teach English.

Mr. B— came to her volleyball matches. He drove to Boston for the finals and attended with a mask, which is something as it turns out, when his fiancé said that he hated long drives. He saw all the games. He was, quite simply, present. His smile. His energy. His devotion to teaching. His love for his students.

The volleyball team won the championships and ousted the top seed. They also won the New England championships. Mr. B— I assumed– was the team Superfan and by extension he was my daughter’s Superfan. We had that in the arsenal if all else failed: Mr. B—.

Until Saturday, I figured this was how things were. At the ceremony, family, teachers, and students told stories at the podium in the auditorium. Speakers included the quiet student, the outsider, the parent, the teacher, the friend, the partner, the son. There were not enough tissues. The Julliard-trained Mr. Colin played JS Bach’s Sarabande No. 2 in D minor on the viola. The choir of students and faculty sang Ad Astra per Aspera, to the stars through difficulties.

Mr. B— was a poet and students recited his poems, the words on the mega screen behind them. Here’s one of the many stories shared. A student was in the counselor’s office, openly frustrated with his studies and all of the things going on in his life, enumerating each detail, feeling heavier and more down as he did so. He said something along these lines, I have to do this and I have to do that ...

Mr. B– was there and stepped towards the student. He said to him, It’s not that you have to do that and you have to do this. It’s that you get to do them.

It’s that you GET TO DO them.

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And I was reminded of DFW–David Foster Wallace–and his This is Water commencement speech. When you’re that big of a name, you get initials. DFW. And of course your speech that goes viral, it gets a name too. I gave out three copies this year, which is bound in hard-copy, because it’s that good. I read it often and I listen to it often.

Mr. B– his take, his hard-won lessons about GETTING TO DO versus having to do, well that reminded me a lot of DFW’s passage below. About perspective and attitude, about shifting to awareness and stepping out of the me-as-the-universe default mode we are all programmed in.

In this season of rain, flowers, death, and graduations, this passage is fitting. But mostly because it reminds me of Mr. B—.

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But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer.

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Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

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Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.

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But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

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Excerpt from, This is Water, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.

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Mr. B—‘s idea of GETTING TO DO things reminded me of the SACRED that DFW mentions in the last sentence, the same force that made the stars: love and fellowship, and all that mystical oneness.

It’s deep and it’s real. And later in the week after the ceremony, I was upset about some stupid thing and needed an attitude adjustment.

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GET TO DO and SACRED

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And I confess that I realized something about Mr. B—- since Saturday. He was my daughter’s Superfan. And, he was every single student’s Superfan.

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FOOTNOTES

*Mr. B—- may be to many, that teacher. And for my daughter, Mr. B—- is Adam Boaz. Teacher, coach, mentor, poet, lover of all things Shakespeare, and Superfan. Obituary in Patch.com.

*E.E. Cummings broke poetic boundaries with his whimsical syntax, pictorial representation of words on the page. As  M. L. Rosenthal wrote:

The chief effect of Cummings’ jugglery with syntax, grammar, and diction was to blow open otherwise trite and bathetic motifs through a dynamic rediscovery of the energies sealed up in conventional usage … He succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace.[1]

WIKI Page on EE Cummings

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May 16, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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