…or “Why I Have the Best Job in the World”
Internally cringing, I call on Zeke* to share out his short fiction writing for the day. I’m a middle school writing teacher and believe in every voice being heard, even when I know that voice is going to involve the gory bloodlust of an always-to-be-continued Zombie Apocalypse battle scene.
True to form, our class listens to his passionate portrayal of vicious slayings and gorging undead while I weigh in my mind how far I should let him go before I talk to someone about this obsession. Finishing with aplomb, he looks up and smiles at me in such innocent excitement over his latest story installment I can’t help but sincerely smile back. I love these kids. Of course I do. I’m their teacher.
I’m also feeling excited because I get to follow up Zombie hour with Day 1 of our next unit: Poetry. After the scattered groans subside and the room is quiet again, I lay the groundwork. “I believe in writing to share your unique interests and voices, as you know; I also believe in adding to your repertoire. So, just for today’s work, no blood, guts, zombies, video game references or anti-terrorism plots.” Groans now accompanied by pencils tossed down and bodies slouching low, I cheerfully begin. Pointing to the word lists surrounding us around the room, the task, I explain, is to take a word from each list and write a short, non-rhyming, poem using them.
Dragging themselves up and around the room, my students begin the work of word compiling and forming and rearranging until eventually the place is abuzz with the pulse of new creations being born from multiple hands in multiple forms line by scraggly handwritten line. It’s turned into one of those rare engagement moments you pray for an administrator to walk in on, and sans that, you soak up and store in memory for all your other days to come.
Sharing out their work, I listen to poems of nature and siblings and new school jitters, but nothing prepared me, prepared us, for Zeke’s contribution. He opens up with words of longing and beauty appreciated from afar and the small joy of a long-awaited held hand… and when he finishes our silence shakes the room still. It was gorgeous, and so unlike our zombie hunter that all we could do was stand, stare, and then steadily clap and cheer and take turns both patting him on the back and shaking our heads in surprise.
That day was about two years ago now and much to my surprise, Zeke visited me in my classroom after school today. The high school let out early and he had a friend playing in a game here soon so…
Gone was the round-faced middle schooler always carrying his Walking Dead water bottle around, and in his place was this tall young man with cheekbones and a driver’s permit he took out to show me. Admiring the success of passing that test and taking such a good picture to boot, he shyly also pulled out of his open wallet a ragged piece of torn notebook paper folded over into a small squarish shape and handed it over to me. Questioning, I opened it carefully to see the faded pencil writing of the poem he’d written that spring day years ago.
“I keep it with me. All the time.” he said. “I loved your class and I loved that day and I just wanted you to know. I’m proud of this and I keep it with me. I use my voice a lot now. Thanks for being my teacher.”
Then with the buzzer sounding out from the gym down the hall he gives me a quick squeeze and that familiar earnest grin while waving over his shoulder and bounding out the door and down the hall.
And I stand there in the middle of my classroom, the ghost of worn paper still tingling my fingertips, smiling and thinking of nothing but zombies.