While working sporadically on a longer post, this question came up. Suddenly it hit me---Hey, I'm a blogger! Figured I might as well toss this quandary into your formidable laps.
Let's say that I've been doing a theoretical poetry residency in a rather tony high school in a rather tony theoretical suburb just past, theoretically, Manhattan. The 11th-graders are theoretically typical--tethered to their cell phones, swathed in spandex, sporting tattoos, gleefully potty-mouthed, indulging in quick, furtive blowjobs in the back stairwells. You know, the usual.
I'm teaching persona poems, which I love to teach because kids nowadays have no boundaries. No one's told them yet that their imaginations will grow numb then wither into further numbness. They still got dreams, dammit.
So after I explain the concept of stepping into other shoes and writing from other perspectives, after I assure them that they can take on the persona of absolutely anything, one of the cagey little imps comes up with a poem in the voice of a penis.

Theoretical hell breaks loose.
OK, let's get this straight (no pun intended). The theoretical penis poem was clever, discreet (with the exception of one line, which I won't repeat here) and pretty well-written. It was a perfect illustration of what I'd been talking about, and I saw no reason whatsoever why he shouldn't share it with the class. After all, I suspected they'd all passed Sex Ed with flying colors, during which they probably stumbled upon the word, and the guys in the room were actually in possession of the genuine article.
The theoretical class was, for the most part, very adult about it. A few of them had trouble guessing the persona (that's how discreet it was), but the near-misses were hilarious. Midway through the spirited recitation, I noticed the teacher in the back of the room, his middle-American mug hurtling through a series of tortured contortions. At one point, I think he drew a pointer finger across his throat in the classic "Oh God, please stop it now" gesture.
The theoretical kids and I went on an enthusiastic discussion of the phallic stanzas, while Mr. Teacher slowly simmered. Once the bell had buzzed (or was this one of the schools where the buzzer rings?), he pulled himself together long enough to make this one defiant statement: "Nothing gets read in my classroom unless I read it first."
He went on to explain that the creative kid in question often took great pains to bring attention to himself. (I don't know any poets who fit that description, do you?) Yeah, alright. Understood, but the poem was pretty good. The kid had grasped the concept. And--listen up, cause this is important--for the 40 minutes of that period on that particular day during that particular theoretical residency, it was my classroom.
I'd followed the rules discussed in advance. No expletives (insane in this age of back stairwell you-know-whats, but whatcha gonna do?), no overt sex (the penis didn't do anything, it just was), no poems about clowns (that's my rule--don't ask). I'd theoretically agreed to come in and do what I do, and that's exactly what I was doing.
So, for those of you who do work in schools, here are my queries: Was I wrong to have the student read the relatively tasteful penis poem without first checking with Mr. Teacher? When you come in a classroom to do what you do, do you feel free enough to do it? And, especially when you've been working with a certain group of kids over an extended period of time, shouldn't you be able to consider the classroom your domain for the time you are there?
This situation is soooo theoretical. I'm just curious what you guys think.
In other news, one of my Cave Canem students recently penned an ode to her womb. But that's another story...

Originally Published: April 29th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...

  1. April 29, 2007
     J. Bryan Shoup

    What's a "middle-American mug," beyond vestiges of class warfare in a metaphor?
    Anyway, all kidding aside, I think you made a small error here. I don't think it was intentional, but since you ask for the take of this blog's readers...
    I'm a teacher myself (first job out of college, I teach Greek and Roman history -- with the Iliad and the Aeneid for each -- as well as Logic and Latin) and I can understand where Mr. Regular was coming from.
    It may have been "your classroom" for that duration of time, but ultimately he has to deal with the student the rest of the day. If the student was able to overindulge himself and go a bit overboard, that energy and insouciance (or perhaps malice toward his regular teacher) carries on to the chunk of the day that is Mr. Regular's.
    Think of it in terms of discipline. At my school, students are not supposed to lean back in their chairs (it weakens the chair legs and we've had a few kids hurt themselves by disobeying, what with gravity and all). It's a hard habit for kids to break, and if half of us enforce it, and the other half doesn't, then the enforcing half has to deal with students full of bad habits.
    Or if the teacher before my period gives them heavy loads of sugar, they'll end up crashing or being hyper in my period. I mean, I give sugar as well, just at the beginning of class on an active day so the energy is processed.
    Hopefully you see my point. The hour I have with each class is my time, but it profoundly impacts everyone else. That's the nature of teaching at middle school or high school. I let coaches and other teachers from time to time stick their head into my class and make announcements. I don't make a list of what they can or can't do. But it's common knowledge that the football coach can't do their pump up cheers in the brief five minutes alloted to him, because that will impact their conduct once he leaves.
    A penis poem sounds clever, but at a public school you're never quite sure who you're going to offend, and that teacher may have feared being part of the target if a parent or student complained, because he allowed it to occur.
    As for poets seeking attention, not all of us do it in flashy ways, or else there wouldn't be pennames.

  2. April 29, 2007
     Liz Babcock

    oh God, what is school for? by all means, go back to pointless boredom.

  3. April 29, 2007
     Braless Teenager

    One blog:
    One entry:
    The Latest NYC DOE adventure
    a poet with cerbral palsy shares her story as an invited to a high school classroom.
    i feel and fear for students.

  4. April 29, 2007
     ode to the womb poet

    well, kids these days know a lot more, so i would just tell them straight up- this is the exercise, keep it clean in school, but feel free to write and share whatever you want outside of the class...(sounds like some real '1984" type-stuff, i know, but i guess this is what i'm not a teacher =)