Thank goodness your story was soooo theoretical because it would have been quite a dilemma had it actually happened. This is, at some level, a tough one, but for me it is not so tough. I am afraid my answer will not please the freedom of speech folks. The teacher’s declaration at the end of the class was wrong but understandable. You see, if he was in some schools here in South Carolina the entire thing could have been on tape. Indeed, one of our local poets was faced with a similar situation. It seems as if the administration at the school had decided that they would monitor her guest sessions in the classroom as a cautionary policy. Without letting her know, the intercom in the class room was kept open so that an administration could hear everything that was going on in the class. She found this out after there was some question about a poem that one of the students had written and the discussion that ensued. It was nota funny or lewd poem, but a poem expressing anger and pain about a rape she had experienced. The students wanted to talk about it and did. It was a painful session, but after the class, the poet was told that she should not have broached such a topic in the class or encouraged further discussion about it.

There is a gut reaction in me that says, “This is not right, these are important issues and it is important for these teenagers to talk about these issues, and many of them would never do so without the opportunity that poetry allows.” This was even truer in another similar situation.
This time another poet was in residence. A student who she was convinced was a boy read a poem that essentially declared her lesbian status. Before the poem was read, the student had asked the poet whether it was fine for her to read it because she wanted to. The poet said she could. The student read the poem but was careful enough to end the matter with just the reading and short praise about the technical qualities of the poem. The student may not have been coming out in the classroom, but the poet felt that this was an important moment for her and she felt that a poem would allow her to do so in a way that would be somehow more acceptable than any other approach. This session, too, was being listened to on a live intercom. The poet was told that they would have to keep monitoring her sessions. There was some discomfort with this discussion. For her part, the poet felt awkward and uncertain. She was aware that she needed these gigs to make a living as a writer, and she also knew the value of this moment for the student. Should she be adamant and declare that she does not care what the teacher or the administration says, she will simply let the students express themselves in clear ways and in open ways?
Here is the thing, Patricia: Actually it is not your classroom. It is the teacher’s classroom. You are a guest. Whatever goes down in that classroom is the teacher’s responsibility. After your sessions, you are gone from the school. The poetry unit is over. The teacher has to continue to deal with the students and whatever fall out that may come from the sessions. The teacher has invited you in and has taken a bit of a chance with that. As far as the administration is concerned, you are just a civilian who is in no danger of having to deal with irate parents or even law suits about what their children are being exposed to officially by the school. No one is giving instructions about how to do blowjobs in the stairwells in the classroom, and so the most that a parent can say is that the school has been negligent in allowing the lovely kiddies to do such slackness during school hours. But what happens in the classroom is game. You can walk away. The teacher cannot walk away.
The classroom is a funny place. When you are given a class—an official class for which you are responsible for a semester or a year, you are being granted quite a responsibility. It is not so much the nobility of the role that I am speaking of, but the headaches that surround the role. Teachers decide quite early in their careers, just what they are going to take on and what they are not going to take on. Sometimes we feel as if teachers who do not open their classroom to wide-ranging discussions about life and about issues in the personal lives of their students are actually insensitive people who do not care about what is happening to the students. Most of the time, this is not the case. Teachers often choose to not tackle these issues because they know there are not equipped to do so and they also know that doing so is not their job. Teachers are concerned about covering the subject matter, about maintaining discipline, about keeping a careful balance between familiarity and the distance to sustain their authority in the classroom, and much else. Teachers also know the back history of the students and the dynamic of their relationships in the classroom. Your student poet has a history. The teacher knows the history. And even though the poet may have followed the rules to a “T”, the teacher also knows that the student was playing his usual game, a game that will continue long after you are gone. There is a chance that the teacher is failing to reach the student and to draw out the best in him, but chances are that he has read the student right and that he (the student) is up to his pranks again.
Of course, my quarrel with the teacher is basic. His declaration that he must read anything that is read in class is a clear indication that he has lost trust in his guest. And that is equally as problematic as his failure to deal rightly with the students in the classroom. He is not treating his guest poet in a respectful or trusting manner and that is not a good thing. But he has panicked. He is convinced that he has lost control of the classroom and he is anticipate the flak that will come his way from parents and other concerned folks if a student reports this to a particularly hyper and unreasonable parent. Of course, this may be just part of a long-running battle that he is having with the student in question, but we can’t be sure, and even if it is, it is hardly the business of the poet, I suspect, to get into this.
When I invite a guest in, I am taking a risk, actually. I know that I am offering the poet as a recommended presence in the classroom. I know, also, that I am endorsing what the guest does in my classroom and that I will have to spend time working through whatever the guest has said and done in the classroom. And, yes, I do not cede the class to the guest when I have them in as a visitor. I am still the “teacher of record” and ultimately responsible for whatever happens in the classroom.
The SC Poetry Initiative’s Split P Soup (an outreach organization for grade schools in the state) places many poets in classrooms all around the state. We take a great deal of time training our poets—most of whom are MFA students or graduate students in the English Department. Because we are trying to encourage teachers to have our poets come into the classroom, and because much of this is a PR exercise, we give a great deal of time to the principle of working closely with teachers to ensure that that the sessions meet the curriculum and “cultural” needs of the classroom. We sensitize them to the sensitivities of teachers and we try to instill in them a sense that they are dealing with teachers who feel a strong sense of proprietorship about their classroom.
Of course, when I visit schools, I spend time trying to ensure that the school knows what I will be doing and what the risks may be. I do this before hand to ensure that there are no surprises that might occur. I know, though, that there is a double-standard at work around how schools react to guests. The bigger the perceived name, the more they allow. Teachers, like civilians, can be deeply biased and prejudicial about how they deal with their guests. Sometimes they invite guests into the class room because it helps them cover a quota of something that has very little value to them. In such instances, they have little patience with anything that makes them have to work a little harder. If they adore and respect a poet, they will allow anything from that poet. If the poet has a Nobel the poet could cuss a blue streak and they will smile and say, “Geniuses, what can I say?” So there may be something diabolic at work in many of these situations, but the fundamental principle that the poet serves at the pleasure of the teacher in the classroom remains.
The good news is that you may have made a poet of your student poet, Patricia. The students will remember the visit fondly and with some joy. The teacher may stay pissed off, that is par for the course. Long term, though, a bad turn could really end poet visits for that teacher. From now on he may only accept fiction writers. A sad day indeed.

Originally Published: April 29th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. April 30, 2007

    this is interesting. the students in the class i work in, they cuss just because it is part of their everyday language. and, outside of just telling them what to say and what not to say, i had to figure out how to convince them that certain language wasn't necessary, right. so i say my piece, thinking that since i dont curse in poems they should work on getting their point across with as little profanity as possible. then i wanted to do your poem skin. and since i have it on tape i wanted them to hear you read it.
    i had to approach the teacher because the language was a sensitive issue up until that point. it had been held to a simmer because the class has only thirteen students... but i still didnt know how to approach your poem. i just told the teacher what was going on and she was like fine. actually your poem ended up being an example of how sometimes, certain language fits. and since i also got to teach them about all the allusions you made in the poem, things they didnt see and i really didnt see until i had to teach the poem, the teacher was happy. the poems they wrote from that were all good, all lacking anything that would get someone fired.
    but, and i guess this is where i agree with you. some of my students, love them though i do, they crave the opportunity to figure im the cool young poet cat and their teacher is the lame, take this test, i'll give you an E in this class bad guy. so i see the problem. i also know that i'm only there one day a week.
    i'd really like to know how people who work in schools deal with the leaving. im in one school where my class hasn't had an english teacher in three months. im talking sub after sub after sub. and these kids know things about stuff i was dreaming of in the seventh grade, but their work is awesome. and i wonder, how the poet deals with knowing that what he's doing is only a drop in the bucket. like you see these cats pulling all this weight, and your only advice, really, when it comes down to it, is "hey young brother, young sister, before you throw the world on your shoulder, bend at the knees so you don't throw out your back."
    it's just wierd wondering, ultimately, what is the lasting impact of coming in a classroom for such short periods of time.
    it's cool though. im enjoying it, and i hope my advice about bending at the knees helps them. even if, you know if i had to admit it, on most days i know they help me more than i pretend to help them.