Below is a poem that Mr. Hammes read at the Senior Thesis reading on Wednesday, May 8th. For a report on the event, go to Events. To peruse (and buy!) the senior’s books, go to Student Writing.
I begin with myself daydreaming in front of my class. You have gathered at the window (like a murder of crows) to stand witness to the common occurrence of rainfall in the South. It would surprise you to know
what I was thinking then,
though it would certainly explain a lot,
like why I am no stranger to a classroom of eyes wandering to the window, like frantic mosquitoes, hell-bent on escaping. Like why I know too the rare joy of a student who comes trembling upon an improbable eagerness, as if I were gravity (that great teacher of world religions),
and the earth, despite it all, was still revolving. I learned once that a good teacher must first be a good student.
He must learn and learn, until he can answer the questions that no one has asked.
So, tonight, I begin with me daydreaming in front of that window; I begin with this: Carol Svoboda (English teacher)
She had us write a poem on the Italian Renaissance, and her comments in the margins are still so purple and true.
You have a gift, she wrote. Now try your hand at some free verse. She wrote, “Past” and “Passed” are spelled differently, you know? Knowing why this is, she wrote, makes all the difference.
Books, she told me, are nothing if not stubborn. So we must be too because, if books teach us anything, books teach us to rebel. Carol Svoboda, she said things like that. She gave me books, the reason I teach, the excuse I needed to tell you this now.
What she failed to tell me, however, is that adulthood can be brutal, that the trick is in being a kid. We are most authentic when we are young and playing, you see, when the sheer size of the world is so enormous we have to look up to see anything. No one tells you that, when you are young, everything surprises you, your own malice especially. It’s frightening how little control you have over your own life, as a child, which makes you prone to believe in everything, so long as your uncle could steal your nose right off your face and make you promise to be good, before he gives it back. Back then, a bowl of Rice Crispies and your father
gave you a sense that important matters
were being discussed over breakfast. You tried so earnestly to be yourself, back then, to lay claim to your piece of the world.
At the window that day, I recalled sitting in Biology class, when I was about your age, and wondering to myself if the tiny amoebas that swam across my eyes were the origins of life. Now that I am older, I just find myself wondering what they are thinking (if amoebas think at all).
Where are they hurrying off to at such an hour? Out to brunch with their other square-shaped friends?
Nowadays, I find myself asking when exactly did all the routines begin? When we still had fins and
were still busying around the ocean floor, until one of us had finally had enough and ventured off brashly to brave dry land? How did it feel to step first on solid earth, sprout legs and fall in love? Who among us was the first to ask,
What is this stirring in my chest? Should I ask her for her number? Na. I’ll just wait till the teacher’s not looking and pass her a note. Check yes or no.
What no one tells you, in Biology class, is when exactly it all began. Actions, you’ve heard it said, speak louder than words because actions, given enough time, become habits. All that you’ve learned about history comes down to this singular fact. What no one tells you, in History class, however, is there is a habit to be made out of words as well, and you can speak things into existence merely by naming them aloud. Love itself survives as a habit in both. A bad habit, granted, but a bad habit worth repeating. This, you’ll figure out, some day, all on your own. In time, you’ll learn to speak his name. In time, you’ll learn to act on it. And soon, you’ll make a habit out of him too, surrender the most secretive parts of yourself to him, the person even that scares you most. You’ll repeat your vows into the nape of his neck, until you discover how to act on the words. There is good, you'll find, in speaking aloud the names of your children, until you know for sure (as only love can teach you) that the truly profane is what little time we have with each other.
And so I did join my class that day at the window. Outside, it was raining sideways. Thunder clapped. The sky broke open in seams of blue light. And the sheer violence of it all was startling. I pressed my nose to the glass, much like you, my students, were doing. And it was then, staring out at
this hat of clouds fogging the heavens, that I considered everything I might one day tell you, certain only of one thing: That this day, this night, that your time would come.
That time has come.
And there is nothing more to teach you. It is your turn to approach the window, to press your face to the glass, before heading out to brave the winds. The storm is frightening, I know. But courage culls inside you. Think of the amoeba catching the transit
to grab brunch with his friends, the first fish to crawl out of the ocean and onto dry land. Think of the courage it must have taken for Adam to approach Eve, to stammer through some pickup line like,
Did it hurt? What? You know, when you fell from Heaven?
And when you think of them, remember courage stains your ancestry. Remember there’s a whole desperate planet out there,
and it’s drowning in rain. Everywhere, there are people in need of shelter.
Everywhere. Let their shelter be your words, the good you choose in living. However long, however brief, hold out your umbrella and call them in. Be a respite, keep them warm. Make a habit out of action,
action out of words, until at last, you have assured them all
(as your teacher would) that the sky is not falling; it’s just a little rain.
– To my graduating writers, class of 2013
May 8, 2013