Sunday, October 18, 2015

What it's like teaching high school, Part 4

In a Facebook post in September, I mentioned that a very shy boy I'd taught as a freshman returned, now in his junior year, to say hello, and to tell me that life had gotten better, that he talks more now. In response, I received this comment from Donny Rios, a student from class of—2004, perhaps:

S. Kay Murphy, my fav teacher ever! The effect you had on me is everlasting. Because of you and your class my junior year I fell in love with writing. I write songs for a living because of you, my enormous interest in pursuing law school can be traced back to your class. To this day I still talk about the lessons you've taught me and also that damn red balloon movie lol. You have touched many lives and I have always promised myself that if I were ever to win some award or give a thank you speech somewhere I would include you. If that doesn't happen just know that you helped mold me into who I am today.

Are there words to express how deeply his heartfelt sentiment touched me?

For days afterward, Donny's comment floated before my teary eyes as I stood in front of this year's crop of potential poets, songwriters and attorneys. And then something even more miraculous happened.

In anticipation of retirement and downsizing, I have been slowly working through my files, discarding reams of unnecessary paper. A few days after Donny posted his comment, I began to sift through some poems I'd written years ago, evoking memories in the same way paging through a photo album might. And then, BAM. I pulled out a poem entitled "Reading Billy Collins," with a dedication to Donny Rios.

Oh my gosh, I remembered writing the poem but hadn't remembered who inspired it. The flood of memories became a torrent—days we spent in class, me ranting about the beauty of words, my students dutifully resisting anything that threatened a commitment to deep reading. For me, it is always akin to convincing a five-year-old that salad, with all its green foliage, is really tasty. I suggest, nudge, wheedle and plead until they just try a little of it, just to see if they might someday develop an appetite for it. At times—very, very rare times—they do.

Donny Rios did. How incredibly validating for me—especially in this final year of teaching. And then to find this poem, which not only mentions Donny but mentions retirement as well, written all those years ago... I can only say that this special blessing was brought to us today by the Universe. Oh, and thank you. I can certainly say thank you.

Now if you don't mind reading a little further, here is that poem:

Reading Billy Collins
S. Kay Murphy
for Donny Rios

I shake my head from side to side
Chuckling as I turn the page.

Occasionally I don't move on
To the next poem because
I want to savor the one on my tongue.

"How can you sit around and read books of poetry?" my students ask.
"Because he writes about what he is in love with," I tell them,
"and they are the same things that I am in love with."

The hush that follows is familiar;
They are afraid that I will be swept
Over the edge once again with my ranting.

"Like what?" 

The lone voice in the crowd
Is the brown-eyed boy, Donny,
Who hated poetry in September but now in May
Has admitted openly that he loves Robert Frost.

(Can I retire now? Are there accolades that teachers earn for such an achievement as this? A Purple Heart from the President with his warm handshake and a salute, accompanied by an honorable discharge, a hard-earned respite at long last from gum on the desks, phone calls from D grade parents and the ten thousandth essay on Hamlet?)

I digress
As I am wont to do while teaching,
Often choosing to lead my students down
The other path in that yellow wood.

"Mice!" I proclaim, "Dead brown mice!
Dogs! Dreams! Words like they are people! And readers as if they are words!
John Keats! And tea! Billy Collins drinks tea!"

By now I am shouting in my jubilation,
And they are convinced of my lunacy at last.


  1. I LOVE IT! You have always been an inspiration to me. Congrats on retirement and like Mr. Frost, you too have chosen the road less traveled. Now be optimistic and go forward! Remember, it's only one step at a time.

    And p.s. I don't know if you saw but in the same thread I mentioned that Robert Frost was still my favorite rapper! Much Love,

    1. I remember those times in class with great fondness, Donny. There is just something about the direct candor of teenagers that I love and wish I could emulate. In that sense, you have been an inspiration to me as well. I love the idea of Frost as rapper!

  2. Love your poem and the response from the inspiration for it! May you have a rich year this year!

    1. Thank you, Mary. I'm going into every day with the attitude that I need to savor every moment and build as many memories as I can.