How very fortunate I was to briefly be a teacher many years ago

It was a school day in the fall of 1982, and I was an English teacher. The class had been doing some brainstorming and pre-writing exercises, I think, around the topics of aging and loneliness, the four seasons, clouds, Nature and similar topics for them to write poems about. I wanted to see how their young, absorbent minds thought about Nature, birds, animals, loneliness and other emotional states, the stages of life, childhood and youth, young adulthood, middle age and old age. They also could pull ideas from the journal entries they had written that day.

I seemed to think back then, and still do, that 7th and 8th graders are much more knowledgeable about life than older people give them credit for. They are beginning to think abstractly, no longer limited to the concrete details of life. It’s called “growing up” into more mature, reasoning beings. Many today would say, however, that childhood innocence and wonder are taken away far too soon, and I agree.

Invariably, however, when a parent or teacher expects a lot out of a young person and treats them with respect and understanding, they rise to the occasion more often than not, and surprise you with a degree of wisdom that is totally unexpected for someone so young. So many parents, unfortunately, have a general tendency to underestimate their children’s academic and thinking skills, overly encouraging and emphasizing sports-related after-school activities.

From an early age, kids are like sponges, soaking up everything they hear and observe about their peers, older siblings, parents and grandparents and, not least, their teachers. It’s a humbling experience indeed to connect with them in a manner that sparks learning. I frequently made time for creative writing in my classes, and this brought out some of their deepest feelings and precociously mature thoughts. I published their poetry in the monthly school newspaper, which I produced with two student editors each year, and in the yearly literary anthology. I saved copies of all of those mimeographed publications, packrat that I am.

The other night I pulled out of a box containing some of those student publications, and started reading their poetry. I occasionally reminisce about those long-ago teaching years, some of the most rewarding in my life, so it’s not like it’s been ages since I’ve refreshed my memory about those teaching experiences. It didn’t last long, even though I had worked hard to get my master’s in secondary English education, and accompanying teacher certification. But the memories are rich, lasting and detailed, thanks to all the student writing and my own memorabilia I saved from those days, several boxes worth, at least.

Here are a few poems I thought were good enough to be published in the school newspaper:

By Kevin

Clouds are cotton balls in the sky.
I sit and watch the wind blow them by.
I’d like to float on a cloud up high.
Gee, it would be fun floating in the sky.

Clouds form shapes like an animal or a face.
They all look like ghosts flying in a race.
Maybe there’s life living in a cloud.
We may never know because
They aren’t very loud.
This is my poem of clouds in the sky.
Won’t you sit and watch them float by?

“The Wind in Autumn”
By Sherri

The wind in Autumn blows freely
and wildly
Dancing among the leaves
To let them know
Their time has come
To vanish in the chilling air,
Caressing the slowly wilting
flowers of summer.

“The Mustang”
By Eddie

The other day I saw a mustang.
He was black and beautiful.
He had a star on his nose and a
gleam in his eye.
He was a young mustang,
Fast and free,
And he acted as if he didn’t have a care.
He ran and raced
Until the sun went down.
He was running out into the sunset,
But before he did, he looked at me
With an expression that was free.
I’ll never forget the day I saw
The black mustang.

“The Ocean”
By Sandra

The ocean is so beautiful and wide
It touches shore to shore
And sky to sky
It touches each one of us
As we watch the tide go by.

By John

Snow is so fluffy and white
And you never know
If it’s going to snow at night.
It’s just like feathers
Falling from the sky.
Children are playing.
No cars, and the air is so clean.
I just feel like falling in the snow
And going to sleep.

I remember I had a student named Dawn, who was very conscientious and a good student. One morning during creative writing period, I noticed she had a far-off look on her face.

“Dawn, I asked, “Is your poetry muse no where to be found?”

She looked up with an expression of frustration.

“Mr. ___, Some days you just don’t feel like writing poetry.”

Well said.

Then there was an 8th grader named Eurico, who was rather a mystery to me. I knew he was smart, but I thought it was more of a “street smart” kind of intelligence, based more on interactions with his peers than with books or school. But I was constantly surprised.

In this poem, something he obviously was puzzled and concerned about came through in his writing that day. I’m pretty sure these thoughts derived in large measure from the brainstorming of ideas about what makes people lonely, but it may have come from a feeling of personal concern for this man he wrote about whom he had actually observed one day.

I myself was sensitive and observant of people who looked down-and-out when I was growing up in the immense and strange city of New Orleans. When I went downtown there certainly was much to frighten and baffle a kid who always took things very seriously.

As I discovered, it’s often through creative writing that students make known their sensitivity and compassion, something that wouldn’t ordinarily be known to others, especially their friends. It might seem weak.

“Lonely Man”
By Eurico

His heart is cold.
His mind is puzzled.
His eyes so blind,
His hands so unyielding.
Whatever troubles
This lonely man?

His life is so darkened
by his fears.
On his face see tears.
They show his unhappiness.
He’s growing old
And beaten by the years.
Whatever troubles
This lonely man.

I hadn’t read this poem in decades. The tone saddened me because I was a young man when I taught that student. Today, I’m an old man, and often lonely.

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November 27, 2023

You’ve touched a lot of students in your past and I’m glad you saved their work. I’ve been teaching for almost 40 years, and continue to work with them. They continue to expand my world, bring me a sense of purpose, and give me focus.

It’s okay to be lonely; when I am lonely, I pull out some Rilke and his poems and essays bring me comfort and company.

November 28, 2023


Thank you!  I really must delve into Rilke.  It’s something. I’ve long wanted to do, but have put  off, as I’ve avoided reading poetry in general.

Back when I was teaching I had never before, or since, appreciated poetry as when I was sharing my thoughts with students, reading their interpretations, and having them write poetry, which they took to quite readily, when I think about it.

What is, or has been, the  primary area of focus in your long teaching career? Fortunate man you are.  I have long thought that in the right circumstances, teaching is by far the most rewarding profession.

November 28, 2023

@oswego The best place to begin with Rilke is “A Year With Rilke,” which are daily readings, all quite short. You’ll get a full view of his incredible range of writings, from short essays to poems to brief excerpts of his longer works.

My career has zigged and zagged over the nearly 40 years: I started out as a middle school math teacher, then I taught as an adjunct at the college where I did my master’s work. I then worked in a public school for a few years, then coordinated elementary school math programs for many years. Now I work part-time doing academic support with college students (in mathematics) as well as publishing materials that I’ve developed over the years. I’m 64 years old, and have no intention of “retiring” anytime soon.

November 27, 2023

Thanks for sharing these with us.

November 28, 2023

@onlysujema I’m certainly glad I saved the poems so I could share them here! 🙂

November 27, 2023

8th Graders (which you know I work with every day) have the widest range of intelligence and emotions, as they are all in different stages of development between childhood and adulthood. Some are smart as a whip, and some are dumb as a post. Some are mature and insightful; some are silly and childish. Some are hard-working and some are lazy. Some are happy and positive; some are angry and moody for no reason. And everything in between. The language arts teachers will sometimes publish poems that their kids write, and I am astonished at the depth of feeling and expression that some of them have. Some of the poems would break your heart. If I remember, the next time they share their work, I’ll send you a copy.

November 29, 2023

@startingover_1  That’s an absolutely accurate and detailed description of 8th graders, as I remember them.  A bit of everything, but the commonality was that they have matured from childhood (6th grade) and are taking  developmental leaps and bounds into emotional maturity and abstract ways of thinking, as you can see from the poems, some of which were written by 7th graders, where the rapid developmental growth period really begins.

I treasure those days teaching in that particular school, as the students infused me with their life force and energy. It was a small, private school of about 125 students, and my class sizes average 18-20 students, which was approaching the ideal, which in my view would be 10-15 students per class.

Unfortunately, I tried public school after that and didn’t make it there.  I didn’t manage the transition well at all and actually was quite depressed about my circumstances compared to the idyllic situation before that. I had my memorable and life-enhancing brief teaching experience, and they was to be it.

November 29, 2023

@oswego ah. I get it. I have one student this year who came from a private school.  There’s a world of difference between him and the rest of the class.