A boy crosses the room during the beginning of class, backpack over his shoulder, the hair in his eyes masking the indifference he bears to his own lateness. You’ve begun discussing Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet, imagining what it must feel like to be able to feel like this, and you notice how the boy takes his time dragging his boots across the floor towards his desk by the window.
“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state . . .”
He gazes out at the street, the art building, the passing cars, the rain, looking more through these things than at them. It’s like you’re not there.
“And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries . . .”
For twenty years you have taught sonnet 29, your favorite poem, enjoying its jazz-like rhythmic improvisations and the wonderful optimism in the face of life’s adversity – “and then, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, haply I think on thee.” You wish a turn of phrase so brilliant would knock on your door and make things better.
You try to ignore the sullen, long-haired boy against the window, but it’s hard. You want them all to realize how amazing this poem is, how such feelings are almost impossible in real life, how sometimes poetry is as real as life is, or as real as you’d like it to be. You don’t know the boy lives with his grandmother. You aren’t there at her kitchen table, day after day, as she reads her favorite recipes to him. Apple pie, chicken and dumplings, tuna noodle casserole. Her only resume. You don’t see him listen lovingly, every night, to this litany of ingredients, only returning to his room when she rises from the table.
You return to the poem, focusing on its wonderful music, its varieties of the iambic pentameter line. You’re happy because you can chart this all out on the board, looking smart, the master decoder demystifying a 400 year-old poem for a bunch of kids who, maybe, if you decode it just right, will really get it. But you ignore the fact of the poem’s words – “this man’s art, that man’s scope,” “men’s eyes,” “cursing my fate.” You don’t ask if anyone has ever felt this because it would be like getting too close to the flame. You pay attention to the metaphors, the beats, the prosody because they are harmless and measurable - - topics for impressive essays – the pain and longing too real to acknowledge as you try to look smart before your class.
You wish you were as courageous as the scowling boy, whose last short story was confused for a memoir and who bore his soul like he was writing on his deathbed – with no sense of audience or repercussions – the petty crimes, the shattered glass on the kitchen floor, the stench of cheap whiskey, the countless hours alone with his XBOX, the half-written suicide notes crumpled in his garbage can, the memory of his first-day-of-school Kindergarten picture on the living room wall – a picture full of toothless joy, a story with only one chapter. He wrote all of this down. You didn’t give it a grade. For once, you had good sense. It would have been obscene to pretend that his pain could fit inside a number in red ink. You wrote “SEE ME” in bold confident letters but the boy had neither the boldness nor confidence to see you on his own. Strangely, you haven’t found the courage to see him either. You wonder for a moment the conditions under which you would “change your state for kings” and what you would change it for. No, that’s wrong. Shakespeare isn’t saying that, you realize. He’s saying that his beloved is so amazing that even though he is envious, jealous, and talentless, the love he has isn’t worth changing anything for. You ponder Shakespeare’s boldness for shooting for the moon. “Kings.” He wouldn’t exchange his shitty life, EVEN to be a king, as long as his beloved stays by his side.
The bell rings, wishing your thoughts could be part of your lesson plan. You drive home to a silent house. The only sounds are the voices of Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek before you retire early for the night. Even in your last waking moments, even in your dreams, you never realize that the boy sits in the dark with his Xbox, the sounds of simulated gunshots muting any hope for cosmic deals, for images of greatness, even for the desire for someone to grab his hand and say, “I am here. I am here.”