by Terry Hargrove
It’s the beginning of March, and if I was teaching somewhere, which I am not, I would be teaching poetry right about now. There was always a brief window to teach poetry, before the sun rose too high, and I lost my charges to fun and crap like that. So the beginning of March was perfect. Cold, clammy, death-like March, the season of grief and sonnets.
And it was always a hard sell. In middle school, I typically introduced my middle school students to real poetry. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve waded past Shel Silverstein and into the murky metaphoric waters beyond. It’s also when I am inevitably tricked into reading large tracts of adolescent poetry written about old boyfriends or girlfriends or others “who have done me wrong.”
My poetry unit always followed a predictable pattern. I started with a work that was sure to get their attention, and last year that was “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford. In that poem, the narrator has come upon a deer that has been hit by a car on a narrow road, and his civic responsibility is to push the carcass into the ravine, so other motorists won’t be endangered. Simple enough, until he realizes the dead deer has an fawn inside that is still alive. After a brief but intense internal struggle, the narrator pushes the deer off the road and into the abyss.
“Are you gonna test us on this?” asked Jake. “Cause I think I could pass a test on this poem.”
“But wait,” asked Heather. “Why did he push it off the road? What about the baby deer?”
“What about the baby deer?” I asked back.
“The baby deer was still alive,” she yelled. “He pushed it off a cliff before it could be born. Why?”
“What else could he have done?” I asked.
“Stop answering my questions with questions!” she demanded. “That baby deer isn’t ever going to be born and you don’t care, you just don’t care! This is why I hate poetry! It’s all about death and dying and poor little baby deers.”
“Shut up, Heather, he said he wasn’t going to test us on this,” said Jake.
“Baby deer,” I corrected her. “It’s spelled the same in its singular and plural form. And I didn’t say anything of the kind, Jake. But back to the work. He didn’t like doing what he did, but he had no choice. And neither will you.”
“I’m never going to run down and kill baby deer in my car,” she exclaimed.
“Neither did he,” I replied. “He came upon the deer after somebody else had hit it. But then he had a duty to his fellow citizens to remove the dead creature.”
“He could have cut the baby deer out,” she said. Heather had begin to tremble, and I was worried about her. “I would cut the baby deer out and take it home and raise it like a pet.”
“I don’t think I’d want a dead, bloody baby deer in my car,” said Jake.
“It wouldn’t be dead you idiot moron,” shouted Heather.
“Heather, use another word,” I corrected. “You’re not an idiot, Jake.”
“Thanks, Mr. H.”
The poem had done its work. I managed to explain to Heather and her classmates that part of driving cars was the unfortunate and one-sided encounters we will have with small furry critters that scamper in front of us as we drive. When that happens, sometimes the best thing we can do is feel badly that it happened. But I wasn’t ready to stop driving just so I could avoid ever hitting animals in my car.
“The power of this poem,” I said at the end of class, “is that it takes us all to an unpleasant place where we all will have to go. It makes us think about something that isn’t pleasant, but that is probably unavoidable. Poetry isn’t all about love and hearts and old boyfriends. It’s about the million little things that we all deal with everyday.”
“Speaking of old boyfriends, would you like to read some of my poetry?” asked Heather. “I brought volumes 1 through 27 to school today. I‘d feel a lot better if you could give me a real critique.”
That night, my eyes began to bleed around volume 9. I went to the kitchen to get some water and surprised a mouse who had discovered the joys of whole grain cereal. He scurried his way into a little used cabinet, and when I opened the door, I was shocked at the amount of mouse waste I found.
“Honey,” I screamed. “We have mice.”
“Are you sure?” said Nancy. “I’ve never seen any mice in this house.”
“One just went into the cabinet here,” I said. “And look. That is one nasty mouse bathroom, that is. Worse than a West Virginia rest stop.”
“You’ll have to buy some traps,” she said.
“I can’t do that. I had a bad experience with a mouse trap once.”
“What was that?”
“It worked,” I said. “I’ll never get over the sight.”
“Well, you can’t put out poison,” she said. “Not with Joey and his friends in the house. What about that special mouse tape? I saw some downstairs that the previous tenant left. That doesn’t look too painful.”
“Mouse tape! Yes! I like the sound of that. No chemicals, no mouse parts to clean up. I wonder if it works?”
The next morning, I stumbled downstairs for some caffeine, and decided to check the mouse tape. I opened the cabinet door, looked inside, closed the door and stood for a few moments. Then I put my glasses on, opened the door again and looked. Nancy entered.
“Did the tape work?” she asked.
“Did we catch a mouse?”
“A mouse?” I asked. “No, not a mouse. We caught six mice.”
“You’re kidding,” she said. “Can I see?”
“You probably shouldn’t,” I said. “One of them is looking up with a particularly sad and confused face. I think maybe the other mice coached him to throw the most effective expression at the first human who opened the door. It’s a good one. I kind of like him.”
“Let me see,” said Nancy. “Oh, he’s so sweet! Poor little thing. How could you put something as horrible as mouse tape in this cabinet! Aren‘t you ashamed?”
I know now that there are worse things in life than getting rid of dead mice. Much, much worse. Later, as I drove to school, I wondered if I should tell my students the tale of the sad mouse and his companions and the tape that left them mercilessly alive. Probably not. If I was a poet, I could write about it. But I’m not a poet. I’ll have to use volumes 10 through 27 of Heather’s poetry to burn the memory away, and I pray Jake’s prayer that I never get tested on my actions on that terrible, April morning.