Canto 1

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a classroom dark,

Chipping gum from underneath a desk with a screwdriver.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say

What was that classroom- dirty, paper-strewn,

Which in the very thought renews the shame.

 

I hardly noticed when the custodian entered,

So full was I of slumber at the moment,

I may have fallen asleep beneath the desk.

But after I saw his tapping  foot,

At that point where the row of desks terminated,

A certain consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld his shoulders

Vested already with that fluorescent light

Which he had turned back on after he’d come in the door.

Then was the  weariness somewhat abated

That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout

The school day, which I had passed so piteously,

And even as he, who, with distressful breath, having cleared out his desk,

Forth issued from the front doors, the last day in June,

Holding a heavy cardboard box,

Turns to the school building and gazes, in terror and triumph;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,

Turn itself back to re-behold the seven sequential bell periods of tumult,

Which had seemed never wont to end.

But since my weary body I had rested,

There upon the linoleum classroom floor,

I pulled myself gradually up from beneath  the desk,

For the firm foot was tapping louder.

“Dios Mio, this place is a mess,” the custodian said,

And as my ascent was done, he said “I’m getting a mop,”

And went back out.

I dusted off some of the chalk dust and washing soda

That my pants were covered o’er.

The time was the beginning of the evening,

And outside the street noise was mounting,

Mingled bachata music and car horns and yelling,

But the lab tables were still covered

With pans of water, washing soda, glass jars, batteries,

The floor splattered with dried washing soda,

From an electrolysis experiment that had gone…not so well.

The black surface of the tiles speckled

Like the variegated coat of some wild beast.

The hour of time, and the deli whose lit sign

Was just visible through the barred classroom windows,

Reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since before dawn.

 

I the hope relinquished of scraping the gum off the desk.

And tossed down the screwdriver from my hand.

Then before my eyes did an old guy present himself,

Weathered, wiry, white-haired, and bent,

Cross-legged, sitting on the long demonstration table,

At the front of the classroom.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you come in,” I said.

“Ah, no, I didn’t come in the door.”

He seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.

“Sorry,” I said again,

“Are you a teacher in this school?”

He answered me: “Not a teacher now; The name is Murray.

I once was a teacher in this very classroom,

And went to school myself just down the street,

And both my parents were from the Bronx, too.

I started at this school when it was built,

And kept on when the Bronx went to shit,

And half the buildings around here got lit on fire.

 

But, what, you tried to do the electrolysis lab, with the batteries and the washing soda?

What a mess.

What were you thinking?

That they were going to light on fire the hydrogen they’d collect?

Are you nuts?”

 

I made response to him with a shake of my bashful forehead.

“But how’d you get in?” I asked.

“I floated in, you might say. Nah, I’m not dead,

I live down in Boca Raton, now, but I’ve been getting into

Transcendental mediation, during my retirement.

It lets me get around, without needing

Much in the way of transportation.

Astral projection, you might say.”

He slipped off of the demonstration table, standing up.

 

“Come on, follow me, and I will be your guide,

And lead you through the several circles of damned teachers,

Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,

Shalt see the misguided teachers disconsolate

Who cry out each one for a second summer break,;

And thou shalt see those who contented are

Within the class, because they hope to come,

To thirty five full years without a migraine, and full retirement.”

 

And I to him: “Murray, let me tell you,

From one science teacher to another,

That I may escape this woe and worse,

Conduct me where you said,

That I may see the portal of pedagogical mistakes,

And the people you make sound so disconsolable.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

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