Two Poems: “Reluctant School Reader’s Lament” and “I Never Thought I’d Be a Writing Teacher”

Reluctant School Reader’s Lament: A Found Poem*

Man, school’s a prison.

No freedom to
what interests me.

No purpose to English.
It’s about NOTHING.
Just going from assignment
to assignment
to assignment
to assignment
to . . .

And I’m totally against textbooks.
There’s no emotion in textbooks.
There has to be emotion if I’m going to care.

When I read gaming manuals, car magazines, sports web sites,
I care.
I learn something in depth.
I find out more about topics
I know a little about, and like.
I can do something with the reading.

In school, the reading’s
too hard I hate to feel stupid, so I don’t read. I just get by.
too long I like short, to-the-point pieces.
too descriptive I like action and suspense.
too routine All the books and all the stories are the same.
too easy I don’t like busywork or reading what I already know.

I want flow:
to feel competent
in control
able to lose myself in the NOW
to do quality reading
today—not for the unit test
for college
for this year’s state assessment
for next year’s class
for success in the work world

I see these are important.
Won’t you see the reading life I’m already living,
the literacy I already have,
and help me use that in English class?

I want to care about reading.

* Found words and ideas
from Michael W. Smith and Jeff Wilhelm’s Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys


I Never Thought I’d Be a Writing Teacher

When I walked
into my first classroom in 1978,
I never thought
I’d be a writing teacher.

I thought I’d conduct
book seminars, paraphrase
lines of poetry, recite

But there was . . .

Turn of the Screw

it fascinated me
but left my American lit seniors
cold and bored—if they
even opened the book

dynamics of language

the class in which
we couldn’t talk
about dynamism
in students’
own language, but had to
parse inane sentences
in Warriner’s Grammar

five straight rows
in English 9, five desks each
of students answering
other people’s questions:

where did Odysseus
wander next?

windows opening
onto a field
of ripening corn

Kenny H
drumming on his
eighth grade desk,
wishing for band class
while I discussed
“The Ransom of Red Chief”

Big Tom
silent and smiling
in the back, doomed
to an F, all
zeros in the grade book.

Barb C
escaping from short stories
every chance she could
to her father-teacher down the hall,
looking for
a pass-to-anywhere
with Barb R.

pleasant but
detached, just like
brother Tom, more interested in
a newborn calf than
three types of conflict

too old for high school,
slouched silent, sullen
greasy jean jacket,
greasy black hair,
white socks poking from peg-leg pants
into black, heavy shoes, daring me
to make him read
or write, threatening
to slash my tires.

If I could meet these students now,
I would show them
how to read
with engaged minds and hearts,
not assign them
five-paragraph themes

We would read as writers, talk
about self-chosen books,
experiment together with
meaningful writing—
not just trade it
for a grade

We’d read aloud more, fix
language problems in context, laugh
and cry, get serious
and goofy, care beyond the bell
about what went on
in English class

Forgive me,
Barb C and Barb R
John and Don and
all the rest of you
who gave me no trouble,
who knew
the good girl and boy roles of school

I meant well back then
in Room 109.
I just didn’t know what
we could be doing,
should be doing there.

Michelle Tremmel, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Iowa State University.  For 20 years she taught middle and high school English in Michigan, and she now works primarily with pre-service middle and high school English teachers and graduate teaching assistants teaching writing.  Among her publications are articles in the Journal of Teaching Writing, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and Composition Studies on working with student writers.