Mary Oliver and the Boys
Twenty years ago, I spent an afternoon teaching poetry to seventh grade boys. I focused on some
pieces by Mary Oliver thinking that the clear and precise language, not to mention the hawks and
grasshoppers, alligators, bears, and vultures might be just the thing to pique their interest. I was
playing to a tough crowd. But still, there were moments.
The experience was a bit like corralling cats. Boys perched, in spite of my warnings, on the thin
lip of the back of their chairs, tempting a classmate to kick it out from under them. The door was
slammed more than once. There was elbowing and crotch scratching, armpit farts and belching
alphabets. But there were also small wins, those moments when I knew a boy was feeling seen
by the page. A boy here or there, perhaps the ones I least expected—the one with the pricey
sneakers or the one who insisted on running out to the hall and back again for no other reason
than he knew it startled me, or the one who used a black sharpie to paint his nails—would
suddenly twist his head on his birdlike neck, blink, his lips silently mouthing the words of a
passage, and I could see it. That moment of recognition. And the wondering. Wondering how his
secret feelings, the ones he hadn’t yet revealed to himself, had found their way to the page. And
there was, among a very few, a creeping blush drawing itself up over a still androgynous face.
I never asked, “What does this mean, what is the poet trying to tell us, what is going on here?”
Those were the questions my grammar school teachers always asked and poetry became problem
solving, as if it was an algebra equation. Instead, I had them read their favorite parts out loud to
the class—not even the entire poem, just the lines they were most drawn to. And I didn’t ask
them why they chose that particular passage, didn’t dare make them wear their feelings on their
sleeves. Towards the end of our hour, I had them memorize the part they liked best, to practice
reciting it to a partner. I instructed them to carve it into their memory banks and recite it to a
parent that evening.
Had another teacher walked into my classroom in the last of our moments together, they would
have heard a strange cacophony of nonsense about alligators crashing on banks, muskrats
swimming, crows puffing their feathers, moth wings, and water snakes. But I knew better. I
knew there were those among them who would now carry a stringing of private words in the
pockets of their consciousness. Like the spy who must eat the paper bearing the secret code once
it is revealed to him, they no longer needed the pages themselves.
I like to imagine now, twenty years since that day, that every so often a young man comes across
those words in the creases of his memory, presses them out flat, reads them to his mind’s eye,
and once again feels seen.