i. Porterfield Elementary
jutted like a brick mole on the inside bicep of Highway E,
just down from where Roberta’s dad sold tractors
to the flannelled German, Norwegian, and Polish farmers
digging up the rocky soil around us.
Here I would learn subtraction from zero, borrowing
a ten from the neighbor number like sugar
(though I needed to stay in from recess to learn to do it, asking why
and then why again, until the “because” ran out, exasperated.)
Also: state capitals (Helena Montana, assigned to me),
cursive writing, long division, the color wheel.
I would write a poem in fifth grade and
Steve Kahara would say “What’re ya gonna be, a writer?” with
the same scorn reserved for heroin addicts, or maybe the Ayatollah Khomeini,
(it was the late 70s after all.)
Mr. Nelson chalked the number of days on the blackboard
that the hostages were held in Iran,
erasing the last digit or two each day, then adding one –
the number stopped one day at 444.
I didn’t ask why, that’s just how the world was, people got held hostage
in places like Iran, and we put the number of days on the chalkboard
until they were free.
(Later they’d make a movie about it, but the part about Mr. Nelson’s chalkboard isn’t in it.)
But nevermind all that, what I really learned was that the world was not as it seemed, that
Shawn Smith, the farmer’s kid with large rectangle teeth and straw-yellow hair
(the one who brought in a cow’s eye for show and tell that one time)
could stand in front of all of us and sing “Stille Nacht” in German,
unaccompanied, nervous, resolute.
(Education lay etherized and spread on the table;
learning was stolen, tucked into your drawstring Panther school bag
and carried home on the bus.)
ii. At Marinette Middle School
I learned the Pythagorean theorem, the language of clouds:
stratus, cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus,
the water cycle in its journey of Sisyphus:
pausing in snow storms, churning in ice in the Menominee river, waiting in muddy fields.
I came in second in the 8th grade spelling bee.
(Basilica. I can spell it now.)
I learned the slippery magic of photography paper
sliding into a tub of pungent chemicals,
images resolving from white nothing into Pickles, my cat,
sticking his head into a hollow stump.
(Who knew that you could get prizes for art for something you’d done
just for its own sake?)
The art teacher smelled of coffee and cigarettes and bitterness of place.
But nevermind that, what I really learned was how the world saw me,
that taping your bangs to your forehead at night did not
guarantee a Farrah Fawcett look the next day,
that husky Wrangler jeans were uncool,
that boys were an open book and girls did not like the page they were on;
but that being pushed off of a snow pile by a particular boy
during winter carnival could be the highlight of my year.
(That’s you, Mark Benson).
I learned that the world could crack like an egg
And seep sticky into my life, perplexing:
Reagan was shot, (even the president was not safe.)
The English teacher’s wife died, but he still
showed up to teach us, swimming in grief.
iii. Marinette High School:
Romeo and Juliet, solving for X, computer programming,
chemistry, pre-calculus, French, Great Expectations;
But nevermind any of that, I learned how I saw the world as it came fully apart around me:
the space shuttle Challenger exploded in a blaze of light on national TV,
the AP teacher told us her life wasn’t fun anymore, the guidance counselor killed himself,
the math teacher stood too close to all of the girls, hovering over their desks,
the English teacher warned me that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,
and then put a scarlet A+ at the top of one of my essays.
And I wrote the story I told myself of who I was;
Underneath all of that, always, a pulsing current,
I learned about power that came from being a little taller, a little thinner,
having hair a little longer –
But I learned the fear too, when it’s all gone too far,
when I’d wandered far from the restroom with my hall pass,
behind the stage in the dressing room with another wanderer,
no one watching but God.
I learned that book learning was easy but life lessons were unannounced and hard:
I took out a mailbox on an icy road,
then knocked on the door to apologize late in the night,
I drove my date to prom and then drove him home again in the middle of it,
coming back to dance within my circle of friends, my shield against the world.
This is who I told myself I was.
iv. At UW-Eau Claire I learned
Maslow’s theorem, statistics, Latin, religions, The Long March, biology,
Poli sci, how to draw naked models.
I wrote poems for NOTA in the library.
(I won a prize, not first, but close enough.)
Nevermind all that, though, I learned that the world didn’t know me.
I rode my bike through Carson Park and far into the rolling green countryside,
and on my way to orientation, I ran straight into an open car door.
(I still went, knees and palms bloody.)
On Water Street I smoked my first cigarette in the back room of The Joynt,
danced on the tables at Shenanigan’s, swore, probably.
No one stopped me;
my drunken roommate walked home one night carrying a bar stool,
and no one stopped her, either.
We were invisible.
I learned that hard work doesn’t equal good pay:
I pulled guts from chickens at the MegaFoods on Hwy 53,
I tutored Latin, I worked with Hmong immigrants
(Bee Xiong, their leader, carefully wrapped English words
and took them home like apples);
They taught me how to say “I’m hungry” in Hmong.
They were even more invisible than I.
Also in part because no one was watching, I learned freedom and consequences:
I met Jesus at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,
I saw Edie Brickell sing in the cities,
I rappelled down the side of a six-story parking garage, drunk
on something that was bright red and served in a garbage can,
which I do not recommend,
(also please pass up the pot offered by my roommate;
I had one hit after another until time stood still,
Van Morrison played in a loop,
and I asked my boyfriend to drive me to the hospital to “fix time.”
He did not.)
There were eight of us in the house on Chippewa, and we learned to be adults, sort of:
we thawed a turkey in the bathtub, paid our cable bill on time;
one roommate fell from the top bunk, one lost her father to cancer.
(I only lost my childhood dog, but I stood at the sink and cried and cried into the night
Thinking of her dying in the back yard without me.)
I dated by long-distance the man I would soon marry and have four children with;
I thought that it would make me more visible.
(Three of them would live.)
v. Finally at the University of Cincinnati College of Law
The avalanche of reading buried me:
Torts, Crim Law, Ethics, Evidence, Con Law.
But nevermind the reading or Socratic methodic,
I learned that I knew nothing but myself and that it was almost but not quite enough:
in the wake of that lost child, I bundled his sister,
three years old, into her car seat for the hour drive to school –
I learned that there is no sorrow that cannot be multiplied, but that
you can and will find your people, and if you can’t hold on,
I know that education is that boat in the waves
that carries ideas you may remember if you are lucky,
that it’s not given, it must be taken,
that the lesson only unfolds when you are finally turned out of the boat,
when you are fast sinking in the heavy water,
when you ask why, and why, and why,
watching the light recede.
It’s who you are
as you fight your way back
to the surface.