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Wednesday, July 8, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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American Life in Poetry: ‘Fayetteville Junior High’

By Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06

How fascinated a young person can be with the secret lives of his or her teachers. I left junior high – middle school today – more than 60 years ago, but still I occasionally wonder about the private lives of my algebra teacher, my science teacher, my English teachers whose deep and abiding privacy I would have done anything to break through.

Here’s a poem by Fleda Brown from her University of Nebraska Press selected poems “The Woods Are on Fire.”

Fayetteville Junior High

What happened was, when we weren’t looking

Mr. Selby married Miss Lewis.

We tried to think of it, tiptoed Mr. Selby,

twirling the edges of blackboard numbers

like the sweet-pea tendrils of his hair,

all his calculations secretly

yearning away from algebra, toward

Miss Lewis, legs like stone pillars

in the slick cave of the locker room,

checking off the showered, the breasted,

flat-chested. All this, another world

we never dreamed of inside the bells,

the changing of classes:

Selby and Lewis, emerging

from rooms 4 and 16, holding hands

like prisoners seeing the sky after all those years.

“Bertha,” he says. “Travis,” she says.

The drawbridge of the hypotenuse opens,

the free throw line skates forward,

the old chain of being transcended

in one good leap, worn floor creaking

strange as angels. In homeroom, the smell of

humans, rank, sprouting, yet this hope for us all.

Poem copyright 2017 by Fleda Brown, “Fayetteville Junior High,” from “The Woods Are on Fire,” (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.

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