On Classroom Conflict

rotten appleWhen egos, interests and agendas collide in the classroom, as anywhere, it is a recipe for disaster. 

How, then, to constructively channel this destructive energy? This is the question occupying the teacher’s mind in Jeff Schiff’s A Paradigm for Effective Instruction – a bittersweet blend of whimsy and weight, and of form and theme in a topical American poem.

Perhaps the event that causes Schiff’s student to boil over is similar to that which raises the temperature of the pale man in Creative Writing Class. Here Chella Courington broaches another contemporary issue in the United States by tapping a question of style that has been running though American Literature since Huckleberry Finn escaped.

We finish, though, across the Atlantic with a teacher getting his just desserts. In Shirleen, sixteen, Harry Gallagher economically evokes the atmosphere of a 1970s English comprehensive in a working class milieu through an anecdote about an actual event that caused a stir when he was at school. Budge up, Pink.


A Paradigm for Effective Instruction

In the instant between jump and how high
     as buckshot strikes casement glass
          I drop to my office floor

wondering which students I’ve unwittingly humbled
     which pointless assignment has them
          crouched in evergreen shrubs

configuring windspeed & velocity
     a calculus of clean headshot
          In the eternity it takes

to spin a siren out of standstill and
     pulse past the library to Liberal Arts
          they hold low

impatient as in class
     No required late night cramming here
          No crib notes on the tablets of the palm

If only I could harness this drive
     I think
          this paradigm for effective instruction

A teacher even in my panic

I begin to compose notes
     to refute any and all arguments
          I begin to systematize to parse

to debate: primacy vs recency…
     begin to notice
          how awfully cold my floor is

for the end of April
     that Spring is too long
          in piercing Mt. Agassiz this year

snow a slurry of blood
          around my immaterial corpse



Creative Writing Class 

The pale man in the back row 
announces I am not a racist
never have been, never will be.
I don’t call his poem racist.
I say that I would not presume
to write in another person’s dialect.
I feel like pounding my desk

sending slivers left and right 
to impale his mock ballad.
I say colored man demans the speaker.
I mean demeans. He glares,
pulls his cap to the side
You say I can’t write in a different voice.
I can’t write like a black man?

Tongue sliding in & out, he acts
like the guy who rubbed his penis 
against my leg on the subway. 
I sit on the desk, counting to ten,
when the woman in front turns
to him. I’m part African American,
your poem feels wrong, as if you 
haven’t been there. Another student asks
What do the words mean? He raises 
his dialect dictionary: It’s all in here,
Langston Hughes’ real language.
My eyes fixed to the floor
fingers unbending a paper clip,
I want to reach the student.

I want to say, you’re just copying words. 
You don’t know what lies beneath.
My voice shaking, I ask 
What’s real?
No one utters a sound 
except the pale man in the back row 
blue notes with a wailing slur. 



Shirleen, sixteen

Shirleen, sixteen,
fearsome Amazon.
Pregnant for the third time.

Insecure bullyboy,
preaching teacher,
searching for a scratching post
on which to mark his patch
and impress an elder
Statesman Of Sadism.

His eyes light feverishly
as they alight eagerly
on the big black girl
at the back of the class,
who is looking outside
at a future made 
from cots, kids, blokes
who will come and go,
then mid 30s grannydom.

Shirleen Boyce!
The sound wave slaps her
back to the now
and the quivering thin man
looming overhead,
stick aloft, 
shaking delighted.

Put out your hand, girl!
He is smacked in the ears by
Fuck. Off.

Pride smithereened 
and elder hovering
like a summer-sick wasp,
the cane descends full force.

By lunchtime everyone knew the story,
growing exponentially,
of how Wanker Watson
had picked on
The Wrong One.

How the girl-woman
had snatched the weapon
from his desperately sweaty grasp
and returned it full force.

And how with one mad act
a baleful monster
had its bubble pricked
by Shirleen, sixteen.