‘Classic American Scene’ and Other Verses


Classic American Scene

                                            after Louis Simpson

It’s a classic American scene—

snow is dusting the lawns

surrounding the public high school.

Students skid into the parking lots

and randomly land their hand-me-down cars

in the vicinity of delineated slots.

Next to the practice football field sprawls

the jock lot. On the other side of the school,

near the fine arts wing, is the pot lot.

The principal reminds us they’re the north

and south lots, but we can’t tell directions.

Our minds have become amazed and bifurcated—

right wing, left wing, red fish, blue fish—

caught in the old puritanical conundrum,

the humdrum reality of a shrinking future.

Let’s wander instead to the grassy expanse

west of the school, where the marching band

practices and Ultimate Frisbee games are played,

where the kids converse and contend and exchange

bodily fluids and observe tiny spears of summer grass

and paint their phantasmagoric clouds on a canvas of sky.


During Peer Reviews

Kaiser challenged Maggie’s use of the word Machiavellian

as a concoction, an invention, an error.

I stepped in to confirm Maggie’s word choice.

But Kaiser was able to even the score

by pointing out that Maggie had invited a vigilante

into her essay when she only meant to be vigilant.

Delaney and Emonei were arguing heatedly

about whether preppy and peppy meant the same thing.

I helped them tease out the differences.

Finally Emonei acknowledged that

yeah, she thought she got it now:  

being preppy was like being bougie.

I resisted the impulse to trace that

back to the French bourgeoisie.

Sometimes, I think, a teacher

needs to stay out of the way.

“During Peer Reviews” was previously published in English Journal

In My Classroom

This year three students chose my classroom

as their lunch haven—the boyfriend, the girlfriend,

and the boyfriend’s younger brother (second fiddle but

not third wheel) would share sandwiches and laughter.

As a kind of post-lunch activity they would

wad up their orange peels and apple cores and

other remnants into the leftover aluminum foil wrappers

and loft the silvery spheres at the trash can across the room.

They would aim their shots at the target over and

over—while sitting in the desks, their eyes closed,

behind their backs, from the window ledge—

their personal game of H-O-R-S-E.

Resilient and unfettered, they would test themselves

again and again, never shirking a challenge

or a dare, undaunted by their failures, celebrating

their triumphs, preparing for their lives.

One Morning in May

As usual, I arrive at Room 232

fifteen minutes before

my Early Bird class begins.

It will be a hot day,

so I open the windows wide

to let in the cool morning air.

As the first students trudge in

and I fire up the computer

and update the daily schedule

and organize my books and papers,

a bird flies into the room.

It’s a barn swallow—blue-black

above, cinnamon-colored below,

a dark chocolate throat, a tail

like the twin blades of scissors.

He circles the room, swooping

gracefully above the 34 desks,

looking for insects, inspecting

the posters on the walls.

Those of us in the room gaze

amazed, transfixed by the scene.

Eventually, finding no food,

the bird tries to leave, flying into

the window glass. We gasp.

He is dazed but undaunted.

I coax him toward an open window

and his escape into the world.

As the rest of the class shuffles in,

sleepy, oblivious to our recent visitor,

I think to myself, This is what I hope

to see happen in my classroom.

No, not every day, but often enough.

If these magical moments never occur,

then all the pedantry and trivia

of grades and attendance reports

and seating charts and lesson plans

is just some mind-numbing bureaucracy.

So every day I open the windows

in the hope that something wondrous

or inspiring or disturbing flies in

and jolts us out of the lives

that we thought we knew.


Reason #17 Why I’m an English Teacher

One of my former students

unpretentious, studious, about to graduate

stopped by my classroom during passing time

to show off her first tat.

“Look, Mr. Duer—Edgar Allen Poe,”

she said proudly

as she lifted her shirt just enough to reveal

a congregation of those stately ravens of yore

flying up her right flank

from the waist of her jeans

towards her armpit.

The Spell of Reading

During lunch, she tells us about an experience she had when she was young: One day in school she was reading a book that had captured her attention. As the bell signaled the end of school, she was approaching the story’s moment of truth. Entranced by the tangled lives of the characters, sensing a dramatic and perhaps tragic conclusion, she hurried home with the book. She went to her bedroom without speaking to her mother or sister. She closed the door and climbed into bed with the book, covered herself with her quilt as if it were a protective charm, its improvised patterns reminding her of jazz. When she had finished the story, which was indeed tragic, splashed with pathos, she wept inconsolably. She stayed there, in her room, under the quilt, refusing to join her family for dinner, and didn’t reenter the world until next morning. Was she mourning the tragic conclusion, or the end of the spell called reading, or something else that seemed elusive, intangible, beyond her grasp? She didn’t know the answer. She only knew that she wanted to be a part of that creative world, one in which the products of her imagination could make others feel such passionate emotions. A lover with the supple limbs and torso of a dancer. A mother singing lullabies. A writer, an artist, an architect of dreams. In an orchestra of minds, the maestro.

                                                                                                                            for A

David Duer teaches US Humanities and AP Language and Composition at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. He is also the faculty advisor for the Washington Literary Press.