Ripton, VT: North Branch School
I opened the front door, kicked the snow off my boots, and turned on the lights. He was pecking away on a computer with his hood pulled tight around his face, his eyes fixed on the glowing screen. He didn’t turn around. I hoisted my backpack up onto my desk, where I saw a torn sheet of composition notebook paper, placed perfectly in the center of my desk for me to see, signed S. H. Above the initials was a six-line poem, handwritten, the neatest handwriting he’d ever proffered.
Steve knew where I was and where I was going to be, and he had met me there. It was his offering, a tentative idea, a fragile gesture saying, “Look, will you look? I have something to say.”
I held it in my hand and read it.
If I could pick a day
To spread my wings and fly
I would never break a promise
Even to this day.
I wonder if I’ll have to pay
To spread my wings and fly away.
It wasn’t much of a poem, but it stood for something magnificent, a little prayer infused with hope and tragic longing, laced with an awareness, as well, of his relative impoverishment. His words expressed a sense of foreordained limitation and his co-existence with dead ends.
At the same time the poem was about the possibility of freedom. This boy, who’d never left the state of Vermont, who’d never seen the ocean or a big city, this boy was asking for flight, praying for it, worrying what it would cost, still believing that he had wings. Then it occurred to me: The student, not the schoolmaster, had arrived early to light the woodstove. Steve had kindled the classroom with the gift of a poem.
When I stepped over the threshold, our school was already warm. When I began class that morning I told the story, a story that had never been told in our school, never had been told in the world, the story of a boy who hated school, who believed school hated him, who believed school was a place for failing, a boy whose most memorable moment in school–aside from having his head hammered into lockers–was his daily trip to the high school gym where, as he passed the Diesel Mechanics class at the Hannaford Career Center, he could catch a fleeting glimpse of his father working toward his G.E.D. It was the story of a boy who had come to a new school and there resurrected his hope of becoming a student who could spread his wings and fly.
I told them how I had found Steve’s poem on my desk.
“Do y’all realize what this means?” I asked, trying to engender some awestruck wonderment. “Do you see what is happening? Steve has written a poem. This fantastic youngster is a poet. This sorry, pants-sagging teenager has got the juice!”
“Way to go, Steve,” said Annie, in dutiful support.
“Steve wrote a poem?” said Doug, as though we had been presented with a sonnet typed by a chimp.
“Yes, he did indeed.”
“Well, can we hear it already?” asked Mira.
“You guys,” I said, ignoring her. “Steve turned this in without it being an assignment. He’s thinking, his heart is pumping, he’s got a pulse, he’s alive. He’s not just sitting brain-dead in front of a computer playing Diablo II. Well, he was this morning, but at least he wrote a poem before he did it. I’m proud of you, Steve.”
I looked him in the eyes.