Review: Teaching Metaphors
Poetry, brief prose
5” x 8” perfect-bound trade paperback
Buffalo, New York, USA
Review originally published on 4/3/13
Mr. Graziano is the teacher you want teaching your kids. He’s smart, witty, and aware of what’s going on in the public school system today. What he’s not is a
[…] glorified babysitter, zookeeper, or sick sexual predator […],
and these pages exist to debunk the myth that public-school teachers aren’t interesting, professional, hard-working, intelligent, important, or necessary individuals.
As the daughter of several generations of public-school teachers, I can tell you that they are, indeed, interesting and necessary individuals. My poor mother spent over thirty years teaching in an underprivileged, underfunded, middle school/high school conglomerate, where she taught sixth-through-twelfth graders in the same classes. You can’t tell me that what she did on a daily basis was anything less than astounding; to find something of interest and understanding equally between a sixth grader and a twelfth grader on the same subject in the same class is nothing short of a miracle. But even if I hadn’t had this background of experience going into this book, these words would still have touched me.
The beautiful paperback book (Everything Sunnyoutside creates looks ungodly perfect.) is split into two categories — The Student Body and The Faculty — that encompass the stereotypes of the two, as Graziano’s introduction says, for good or bad:
[ … ] because [the stereotypes] speak to a human need to categorize[. … T]he labels slapped on us often reveal some core truths about ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. [ … ]
The truths you’ll find here will be at once familiar and startling. You’ll remember the hallways of your yesterdays vividly, but you’ll also see them in a whole new light and through a whole new perspective, a different set of eyes. Graziano will make you remember it all new, unlearn it, then relearn it again, all differently. The words are not just caricatures or stereotypes of people he’s met or taught along the way, but studies of people as a whole, of what makes us human as we grow and learn and interact, what makes us do the things we do, and what that is going to inspire in us in the future. A reader can almost see the way these figures on these pages will become over time, how they will stretch into each one of us, how these personalities become ours, become we as grown adults. This is a portrait of the American school as people, not as a thing — as the living soul behind it that makes up its body and churns out those living spawns that become we.
The book starts right out with this beautiful thing that shows us so perfectly the two sides of our narrator:
[ … ]
In your more serious moods, you stand outside your classroom in your shirt and tie and fail to see yourself.
Other times, you can see your own face through the steam, wearing that dizzy gaze that has always belonged to you.
We learn our narrator so completely in these pages. He teaches us ourselves, and he teaches us him. We learn to trust him, to want to learn from him, to let him be our guide down these hallways as he introduces us to ghosts and necessity. He’s wary and cautious, and he’s careful and accurate, a quiet observer who then keenly interacts like a stranger next to you, joining into your overheard conversation and leaving you with a new piece of knowledge. He doesn’t offer you solutions or answers — sometimes, he even hands you more questions — but he offers you a glimpse of something new and the spirits who inhabit that something new. He offers you something broken, but doesn’t plead with you to fix it, only to understand it.
And that’s the tour we take through the broken public school system, with a very able navigator at our helm. But not just through the school, also outside the school, in the real world, where we see these teachers and students as humans or as animals and what this system, this life, this world has made of them:
[ … ]
embarrassed because this former student sees me
outside of the classroom without the natty necktie
that frames me in a portrait of adult asexuality,
embarrassed because I see him standing alone
in the winter mist with his baseball hat crooked
while his mother’s frail hand clings to a phone.
(from “At a Red Light in the Winter Mist”).
It’s in this education we learn our animalistic behavior, how we exist on the inside and how different that is from the outside, how we carry ourselves, then bury ourselves. And underneath and over the top of all of this, is the running knowledge that this narrator, this teacher, is a figure who cares. Compassion threads through his words. He views brokenhearted students with unjudging empathy, and the proud with a quiet understanding of the downfall to come, and yet, like a rock, he stands there for all of them equally, unwavering in the knowledge that he cannot require them to learn anything, he can only hope to teach it. Sometimes he’s a spectator, doing nothing; sometimes the guardian. In this he is both teacher and student, and his students are also both. So unbelievably human and flawed.
Throughout The Student Body, we meet the same characters again and again — Yesterday’s Princess, The Slick-Talking Senior, The Man-Boys — and we watch their slow progression or deterioration with new eyes. When we get to The Faculty, we get a new cast of repeating characters — Head Case, The Ex-Hippie, The Stress Bomb — and where The Student Body section shimmered, The Faculty section fair glows in fluorescence. Graziano is no longer the observer, but the player. We see his element, the dysfunction, the smooth machine, the chaos, the serenity. From this second section, comes my favorite poem, “The Man Who Whistles at the Copy Machine” (in part):
I see him like the naked eye sees comets:
on rare occasions. It’s always at the copy machine.
He teaches in a classroom eons from the English wing,
in the black hole known as the industrial arts.
Today he’s pirating a how-to leaflet on drywall,
an inch-thick packet that reads like Sanskrit to me.
I’m waiting, fidgety, with a W. C. Williams poem
dog-eared in a fat anthology, a piece
I neglected to photocopy before class.
The Industrial Arts Teacher [ … ]
stands hunched [ … ]
[ … ] whistling a song
I recognize [ … ].
He whistles in perfect pitch, merrier
than Wordsworth’s daffodils dancing ten pages ahead
in the anthology growing heavy in my hands.
There’s no reason to expect him to allow me
to step in front, make a quick photocopy
and get back to my creative writing students.
So I lean against the wall and listen to him whistle,
enjoying this impromptu concert by a man
whose own students are too smart to study poetry.
There is laughter here
[ … ]
We never made it past
the giggling after I wrote
“assonance” on the board.
(from “A Deeper Appreciation for Sound”)
and plenty of moody seriousness laced with casual humility and self-awareness. But above all there is a connection, a portal to a world that is real and exists for all of us, a composite of what will fold into the American Dream from a steady stream of paradoxical dysfunction and serenity. There is humility, and there is humanity. This book touches on everything from state testing to student apathy to financial budgets to Homecoming dances to faculty-meeting doughnuts, finally unfolding into an Epilogue that is to die for, one of the best pieces I’ve read to date, and I’m not going to share a word of its awesomeness with you. You need to buy the book solely for the punctuation of the Epilogue to the ending of this tale. It will make you feel for teachers everywhere, maybe get out your notebook and pen a thank-you note while you watch the boats leave the harbor.