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Poem of Life

Rivka Streicher

Eye contact is the least of her problems. She walks into my home, her whole body tilted away from me in such obvious wariness that I want to cry, to close the door behind her and her issues

Thursday, October 27, 2016

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A n 11th grader who wouldn’t look me in the eye? 

“She’s lacking some social skills,” the special-ed coordinator says when she first calls me about Sara. “But she’s not stupid. She needs help completing her English Language studies so she can get a diploma. Would you work with her one-one-one?”

Sara had been in the very first class I’d taught, when I was just out of seminary. She was younger then, and her issues weren’t as pronounced. But I’d soon learned what a troublemaker she was, and what an angel she could be if left to her own devices — to doodle her way through the lessons with markers and crayons. So I’d let her be. In my classes she’d created pictures and drawings, and I blessed her artistic inclination, without making much effort to engage her.

Five years have passed since then and to be told that Sara is struggling brings my niggling guilt to the fore. I take on the job.

Eye contact is the least of her problems. She walks into my home, her whole body tilted away from me in such obvious wariness that I want to cry, to close the door behind her and her issues. “Hello,” I say, with chirpiness I don’t feel.

Sara grunts and chooses the chair furthest from me. She looks up for a millisecond and in that moment I see the pain, dark and raw, glistening, almost glaring, in her green eyes.

I have to make this work, I resolve, but I don’t know how. I sit beside her and she squirms and fidgets in her seat, her whole body screaming “go away.”

What now?

She thrusts her work at me. Poems. She’s got to explore the language in two poems. Despite myself I am excited. I love poetry and I’m all set to share my enthusiasm.

Nothing doing. There are eight poems and Sara’s got to choose two to focus on. Apparently she doesn’t have a preference.

“C’mon, is there anything you like here? Any topics you find interesting? Any rhythms you enjoy?” A baleful stare.

Finally she croaks, “Okay, the shortest ones.” Phew, something.

But obviously she doesn’t want to read them aloud. Okay, I like reading poems. I start, my voice too loud in the room. It’s a poem about a beggar, sleeping each night on someone else’s doorstep, always under the stars.


Sara’s mother can’t take care of her, she lives out of town, and Sara’s staying at a local family, after a string of unsuccessful stints in other homes. Does Sara see herself in this poem? I will my voice to stay even.

But it only gets worse. I launch into the next poem with markedly less gusto, and I work up a sweat reading about a son mourning his dead mother. “Hush the sounds of music and joy, nothing can play with mother gone…”

Why are these poems so morose? Why can I see Sara’s life in both of them? Teachers, bring on the poems about ice cream and sunshine…

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