My seventeen-year-old students sit with their heads drawn together and a poem, Li-Young Lee’s “The Hammock,” between them, while I make my way through the room to check in with each pair. The poem strings together three generations of a family—the speaker, his mother, and his child—through an abstract metaphor about stars, some hidden and all far away. I stop to speak with Abigail and Emma, both of whom enjoy grappling with challenging ideas. Abigail, in particular, has grown into herself throughout the school year; I’ve watched her become more comfortable voicing her thoughts and exposing her inner world.
“What connotations do you attach to the stars, way out there in the sky?” I ask as I gesture towards the ceiling.
“Well, they’re really old,” Abigail says, looking up from her desk to meet my eyes. They turn to me for answers, for confirmation of their ideas. At certain moments, the weight of this responsibility makes itself plain.
“Yes, so old they seem almost eternal.” I look to Emma.
“And they’re beautiful,” she says.
The reason for my choice of this poem settles upon my shoulders, heavy and woolen. The image of my grandfather, withering away, steps out from the lines on the page. He clutched my grandmother’s hand and called for his children deep into each night.
“Okay. Yes. There’s beauty to these everlasting, ever-present stars. But his focus isn’t really on the stars, right? He’s using them to show us something else?”
Abigail’s eyes flash, and I know that an understanding has settled in. She sees.
In the poem, Lee writes “Between two unknowns, I live my life.”
His child and his mother. To him, they are two forces, two beings he may know as well as the ever-present stars in the sky, but who will always remain separate, distant, at a remove. They are celestial bodies, orbiting each other.
Birth, death. We live in the middle. “What’s it like?” Lee asks. “Is it a door, and goodbye on either side?” Just like the stars, one day we all collapse, our mass and light and energy exploding into nothingness.
My grandfather saved newspaper pages for me. If the teaching profession made even a cameo in an article, I’d find the single page face-up, waiting on my grandparents’ kitchen table. He wanted to hear my thoughts about tenure and pensions, my stories of standing at the helm of a classroom. Teaching, through my grandfather’s eyes, was a pursuit both noble and righteous; through my eyes, it was one that yielded great challenges, and, as I was learning, meaningful rewards.
“Thank you, Poppy,” I’d say in response to his encouragement, as I ducked my head, embarrassed. His insistence on the importance of my work made me feel proud, even as I remembered the stacks of papers I had yet to return to my students and the week’s lessons that I had yet to plan. In my first years of teaching, I thrashed and kicked, barely managing to stay afloat. But every so often, a student would compose a striking string of sentences, pushing my gaze back over the words a second and then a third time, or a child would trust me to help with the difficulties of school or the baffling complexities of life. And every so often, in his rasping voice and simple words, my Poppy would remind me that teachers are important. And I’d remember that they are.
As a man who worked three jobs simultaneously in an effort to move his young family from the streets of Brooklyn to comfortable suburban life, he was especially qualified to pass judgment on work. He knew what work was, and he knew how it could matter: to one’s family, to one’s community, to oneself. While boasting was not in his repertoire—I only heard stories of my grandfather’s demanding schedule from other family members—he did have opinions on the types of toil that matter. Therefore he and my grandmother cultivated thoughtfulness and diligence in their children. They modeled these traits for their kids, along with sensitivity and empathy. Although my grandfather was quieter, he and my grandmother, in equal measure, made sure to fill their family table with busy minds and open hearts.
On the day my grandfather died, I sat at the feet of his yellow velvet armchair, looking up at his slumped and weakened form, his gentle face splashed with a constellation of rashy patches. “I love you,” he’d said, as I held his hand. His skin still felt smooth and dry, as it always had, but his voice quavered with a sound that I now understand was the song of death, beginning its symphony.
He turned to the nurse, a smiling young woman who had just begun her tenure with my grandparents the night before when my grandfather was returned home from the hospital in the back of an ambulance, the lights whirling in a silent dance.
“She’s a teacher,” he told her. Many of the things he said that evening were garbled, non sequiturs. His mind, it seemed, was a jumble of emotions and memories, and each rasping utterance was either a repetition of a previous statement or one strange and fresh. He repeated this one with urgency.
“She teaches the children,” he said. “She teaches them how to be good.”
It is after I call the class back together that I cry, standing in the front of the room. My voice shakes as I read the words of the poem, but I manage to keep a tenuous hold on my tears. I lift my gaze from the thin sheet of paper in my hands to find the many young faces that look back at me. I want to ask about the “two great rests” that Lee writes about, or about how my students interpret the singing that Lee says comes between those two vast empty expanses that bookend our lives. There is powerful emotion wrapped up in the words that Lee has freighted with multiple meanings, and the goal of the day’s lesson is for my students to analyze and articulate the nuances of the poet’s language. Instead though, my tears come, in front of all of those watching eyes, in front of the people whose lives, for a brief period, are lived out day after day in my classroom, mostly hidden behind the curtain of adolescence.
I turn my back. Tissue to face, I gasp “sorry, everyone” and can hear that they are stunned: the only noises in the room are mine. “I’m sorry,” I repeat when I finally face them, and I know that some invisible boundary has been broken.
With the ringing of the day’s final bell, my students begin to rise and collect their belongings. The clamor and commotion that usually erupts is absent as my class begins a slow, muffled exit. I know they don’t know what to say, and neither do I, except for more apologies.
Tears appeared in my grandfather’s eyes as he read the words of the emotive cards my father, my sisters and I wrote for his birthdays or at the memory of the eleven-year-old daughter he lost to leukemia. He was not ashamed to cry when faced with the moments in life that undo us. Neither am I, usually, but in front of my students my face feels hot with shame and embarrassment.
As my students filter out the door, murmuring soft see you tomorrows and feel betters, Abigail loosens herself from the crowd.
“It’s ok, you know,” she tells me. As our eyes meet, she offers me a simple salve. “We’ve all been there.”
I smile at her, at her teenaged wisdom and her kindness. She heads out the door, back into the wild brimming expanse of life.