Writing Through: You Are No Longer in Trouble by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

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I have never read anything quite like You Are No Longer in Trouble, and neither have you. Concerning its mosaic of formal structures, its capaciousness of content; concerning the complex authority and humility wielded by its speaker—this newest winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series written by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell and published by White Pine Press is a sui generis marvel of hybridity and among the most resonant and meaningful books I have encountered in my reading life to date.

On the back cover, in the upper-right corner, appears this designation: Poetry/Memoir. When I see the double genre, my hybrid-loving heart begins to beat a little quicker. The Table of Contents is arranged in a triptych structure, fittingly signifying this book’s kinship with other kinds of art: “I. Equal and Opposite,” “II. Each Time You Ask,” “III. Ignore All Alarms.” Scanning the pages in search of patterns, I notice a recurring title, which appears thirteen times across the collection: “Excuses for the Principal.” What I don’t know yet is that each “Excuses for the Principal” entry is broken in half and numbered. Taken together, these entries form a lyric essay in twenty-six parts that grows by accretion. It could stand on its own as an exceptional work of creative nonfiction, but here the segmented essay serves a grounding and edifying role as a recursive touchstone throughout the book. (And of course, being “in trouble,” a state this collection reckons with in so many ways, is exemplified by the daunting childhood trope of being “sent to the principal’s office.”)

I also notice how the book’s landscape is dotted with a familiar lexicon of words and phrases that are particular to teachers, academia, and the pedagogical lifestyle. (And yes, it is a lifestyle, this constant interaction with the world in terms of teachable texts, the eventual inability to consider any text apart from its potential teachability…). O’Donnell references “Other Duties as Assigned,” “Staff Meeting Announcing Cuts,” “Writing a Clear Rubric for Class Discussion,” “Parent-Teacher Conference,” “Projector,” “Drills,” “Contract Language” (every teacher knows what this means), “The Pile” (ditto), and one of my favorite titles, “No One Takes Attendance at Commencement.”

But this book isn’t just for teachers and it isn’t just about them. Everyone who has ever been to school remembers “Morning Announcements,” remembers “[…] the Passing Period,” “Second Grade […],” “[…] Third Grade […],” “First Day of School […],” “[…] Third Period […],” and “On a Field Trip […].” This book is for and about all of us, you see, everyone who has participated in the educational system in some way. Exemplifying the paradox that the nearly universal is conveyed most powerfully through the highly personal, O’Donnell chronicles her unique and ongoing experiences as a woman who was first a student, then a teacher—and as a woman reckoning with the ways that every teacher remains, inevitably, a student forever.

In general, I love both coming-of-age memoirs (bildungsroman/kunstlerroman) and memoirs centered in adulthood. Here O’Donnell has ambitiously merged the two time periods, splicing her own childhood and adolescence as a reluctant student, depressive teen, and principal’s daughter with her life as a grown-up, relocated from Chicago to Fairbanks, Alaska, married, teaching, and mothering to two daughters of her own. Simultaneously, O’Donnell is pioneering a third facet of the self-referential arts, one I’m inclined to call pedagogical memoir. (Nota bene: As with fine wine, O’Donnell’s You Are No Longer in Trouble will pair nicely and provocatively with Stacey Waite’s innovative Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing.)

The writing here—a fusion of poetry with prose, ode with elegy, lyric with narrative, intimate epistle with cultural commentary—coalesces (though the more fitting word is triumphs) as a meditation on teaching and the deep contradictions contained therein: both the fraught profession and the illuminating vocation. To fully experience the unmasterable nature of creating occasions for learning, of guiding others to understand something new, reader-teachers and readers who have never taught require a masterful immersion in O’Donnell’s world—an immersion she deftly delivers. This immersion must, of necessity, include both her history and her present, her parents and her parenting, her struggles as a disengaged youth prone to self-harm and her struggles as an engaged teacher in mid-life, encountering students who often remind her of her former self.

Here’s a moment in the book—prose poem? micro essay? you tell me which you think it is, or if you think the genre marker matters—that showcases how attuned O’Donnell is to multi-valence and recursion: “Lines Composed upon Finding a Note Crumpled in the Corner at the End of the Day.” English teachers of all kinds, and many students, former and current, will hear a whispery allusion in this title to the iconic poem by William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” It may be worth noting that O’Donnell’s book contains no enjambed lines, no poems that visually signify themselves as William Wordsworth’s does, and yet the poetic qualities of O’Donnell’s project are never in question. For a teacher, where lines play a significant role in organizing both content on the page and students in the hall, the choice not to lineate feels salient and speaks, in my reading, to the relentlessness of these memories, these classes, the overlapping and unparsable identities our speaker inhabits. There are no line breaks here because there are no breaks here.

This prose poem/micro essay begins in italics with imported/found text:

Hey Marcella, so what’s up? I want to tell you somethings so I am apologized about bad things. I want to be nice you so. also Jeff talked with you last night that is right? He just want to be solve with you so. Do you’re glad that Jeff come over your house?

Also salient is the omission of the designation “[sic].” The letter stands as is, without even the insinuation of a red pen altering it.

Another surprise: the spontaneous refrain “I do not know,” which emerges hereafter, along with its variant, “How can I know?” The teacher knows a lot, but what she knows best is what she doesn’t: “I do not know which of the 135 faces belongs to you,” the note-writer. “I do not know whose fingers gripped the Bic rollerball and pressed it into the page, who built the beautiful, sweat-rumpled, pocket-creased, blue-lined trash between my fingers […]”

Of course you hear the poetry in here: slant-rhyme of “gripped” and “Bic,” consonance of “Bic” and “ball,” alliterative power of “pressed” and “page,” “built,” “beautiful,” and “blue-lined” (doubling with the consonance of those interior “l”s). O’Donnell manifests a poet’s attention to diction and syntax through every unbroken line in this book. She makes every unbroken line sing.

O’Donnell’s speaker, though she doesn’t know which of her one hundred and thirty-five students wrote this note, can’t deny her own desire to reply, to acknowledge the value in communication, the attempt to convey something, anything, in words:

I know whoever you are, student in fifth period, no matter your grade, your name, whether you were the one who called me bitter old woman, whether you told your reading group to fuck off, or you drew the picture of Gabe sucking a horse’s dick, the one so high from huffing all you could do was stare at the pads of your fingers, or the one who puked in the garbage can in front of the whole class, whoever, I am solve with you [invoking their language, and in the process, validating their choice of word] because you, like me [that reach for a tiny patch of common ground], are trying, for once really trying, to get just this one thing right.”

So you see, O’Donnell the writer creates dialogue where there is silence—not only in this example but throughout her book. The note was accidentally intercepted but not indifferently received. And by writing back to the unknown student and placing this hybrid epistle within the larger text, O’Donnell is simultaneously writing to us, her unknown reader(s), enveloping us (I couldn’t resist!) in a correspondence that is bigger than one crumpled slip of paper discovered after class.

Here’s another example of broken silences in unbroken lines:

In “Honestly,” O’Donnell creates something I might call a persona compilation poem or a cento of received responses. By immersion, as is her way, the reader is plunged into an onslaught of comments made by unattributed speakers, one after the next without a caesura, let alone an enjambment. Her own commentary on the comments is unnecessary:

I didn’t know you were a teacher. Oh, god, I’m sorry. High school? Not college? That explains a lot. I could so never do that. Thank god for you. You’re a saint. What’s it like to get paid for sitting around all summer. That must be nice. You get paid for summer, right? For glorified babysitting, imagine that.

Notice what’s happening to you, Reader, even if you are not a reader-teacher. You’re beginning to bristle a little, aren’t you? Maybe you’re becoming more aware of your pulse, a slow ticking in your wrists or temples that might suggest the presence of a bomb.

Here’s some more, from closer to the fulcrum of the text:

Teachers don’t get paid enough. You poor thing. It must be hard. Teenagers scare me. What do you think of vouchers? Aren’t you afraid with all the shootings? With all the drugs? With legalized marijuana? With the texting? They can’t even spell these days. How do you stand it? You should have a gun.

What kinds of things do people say to you about your profession/vocation? What is the well-intentioned factor, the uninformed factor? What do you say? (The fact that O’Donnell doesn’t respond only further implicates us, her reader-listeners, in formulating our responses to this inundation.)

Here’s some more, now from the conclusion of the text:

My son has the worst English teacher. Could you read his last essay and tell me what grade you would have given it? Just so I can compare before I talk to the principal. I promise I won’t mention your name. Can’t they just do school all online with games now? Kids today like that better anyway. Mine does at least. What do you think of the school district here, honestly? [The title of this text reverberates in all its multivalence here.] No, honestly. [Ditto.] Really? I couldn’t ever send my kid to a public school. She would be bored. Nothing would challenge her there.

The “Really?” suggests that O’Donnell’s speaker does reply, but it happens “off the record” of this prose poem/micro essay. We know, or can infer, that O’Donnell’s speaker teaches at a public school. We recognize, or can infer, the dig at teachers like O’Donnell’s speaker when the unidentified parent (who could be, let’s face it, a composite for many parents) says her child would be “bored” in public school, e.g. in a school like O’Donnell’s, in a classroom like O’Donnell’s. The greatest irony, of course, is the last line: “Nothing would challenge her there.”

This prose poem/ micro essay is another version of “Lines Composed…,” another way O’Donnell is responding to statements that don’t seem to deserve a response and yet simultaneously seem to warrant a litany. She involves us as readers in her literary rebuttal, which is the challenge at the heart of this text—such a challenging text!—and she also implicitly addresses “Honestly” to every person who has ever said any of these things to her or to someone else. Maybe some of us reading this prose poem/ micro essay are implicated because we’ve made comments similar to or exactly like these to a high school English teacher we’ve met. Maybe some of us reading this prose poem/ micro essay are implicated because comments similar to or exactly like these have been made to us. Regardless, we’re implicated now because we’re reading and because we’re immersed and because we’ve been challenged, implicitly, to respond. (Nota bene: This is also how compelling literature transforms even readers who are not writers into writers.)

Finally, in the spirit of O’Donnell’s triptych structure—and acknowledging this book deserves a whole book in response, not merely these few pages—I’ll close by looking at a third text from You Are No Longer in Trouble, which is both the penultimate micro essay in the collection and also the title poem.

Mr. Buff rides a motorcycle to work and keeps a knife in his black boot. He pulls it out, cuts the apple on his desk into wedges and chews. As punishment for cheating on your math homework he makes you stay inside and write a story using all the words on the spelling list. Mr. Buff might know some things about catching cheaters, but he doesn’t know that to you, words can’t ever be punishment. You write Rhyme and Rhetoric were walking down the Boulevard. You make them do bad things. You make them so bad you might be afraid to meet them walking down the boulevard. You make them as bad as the boys who smoke in the dugout at the park, as the men shouting in the beer tent at the Fall Festival, as the bikers at the tavern with Mr. Buff. You write so hard the lump on your middle finger aches [raise your middle finger—for me, it’s my ring finger—if you have one of these bumps!] from the pressure it takes to push the words across the wide-ruled paper [those pre-made lines!]. You walk back to the desk with a page filled to the last line. As he reads a smile spreads slow across his face, and you are no longer in trouble.

The title of the book and of this prose poem/micro essay within it and of the many other passages contained within the collection are written in second person. By design, the second person implicates us in whatever we read. So this scene is our experience now. Mr. Buff is our teacher, and we are in trouble, and the trouble turns out to be “good trouble,” in a way, because this teacher doesn’t understand that the “we” implicated in this text finds words to be something else, inherently, than punishment. Praise? Reward? Escape? Hope? All of the above.

As savvy readers of second person, we know we’re supposed to read the “you” in this text as the speaker, young Nicole, as she recounts a past lived experience in a paradoxically more-and-less intimate way. This event probably happened, we reason, and it probably happened to her, all the while knowing it didn’t have to have happened to anyone for it to be real in the speculative context (parable?) this deployment of the second person makes possible.

By writing this scene this way, O’Donnell has both/either recollected and/or created the story. She has made a narrative about Rhyme and Rhetoric as personified characters, and that story now lives inside this larger story, which includes but is not limited to the larger story of her life.

Maybe as readers and possible writers and teachers, we read this text as an origin story—the moment when Nicole Stellon O’Donnell first became a writer as she realized the perpetually non-punishing power of words. Maybe (also) we read this text as a touchstone story (a lesson or allegory?) for her own emergent identity as a teacher. Being a teacher makes you all the more aware of all the teachers you’ve ever had—harder on them and more forgiving of them at once—another hybrid!—and in particular, all the more aware of the ways in which you, now the teacher, might be wrong about any given student—the way Mr. Buff (literal teacher or not) was wrong about his student (literally Nicole Stellon or not).

You Are No Longer in Trouble documents Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, caught in the slipstream of a new kind of trouble—existential, bureaucratic, pedagogical—still/always/perpetually “saving herself” through writing, but saving in a new way. You don’t/can’t write yourself out of vocational trouble, but it is possible, as this book epitomizes, to write your way through.

Final nota bene: Fellow readers and would-be readers, I assign you this book. It troubles, in the best sense of this word-as-verb, your expectations for writing, knowing, and teaching. It troubles, in the best sense, your genre sea legs, the balance you strive to find within a single form. And if nothing else I’ve shown you here about the ways you’ll be instantly implicated and immersed in what you read has convinced you, then I assign you this book because there’s a prose poem/micro essay inside it called “The Principal Can Go Fuck Herself.”

The reviewer rests.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →