A Glimpse into My Former Life

Doing the Funky Chicken at the York Academy Talent Show, 1987

Prompts (for High School Teachers Who Write Poetry)

by Dante Di Stefano

Write about walking into the building
as a new teacher. Write yourself hopeful.
Write a row of empty desks. Write the face
of a student you’ve almost forgotten;
he’s worn a Derek Jeter jersey all year.
Do not conjecture about the adults
he goes home to, or the place he calls home.
Write about how he came to you for help
each October morning his sophomore year.
Write about teaching Othello to him;
write Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven.
Write about reading his obituary
five years after he graduated. Write
a poem containing the words “common”
“core,” “differentiate,” and “overdose.”
Write the names of the ones you will never
forget: “Jenna,” “Tiberious,” “Heaven,”
“Megan,” “Tanya,” “Kingsley,” “Ashley,” “David.”
Write Mari with “Nobody’s Baby” tattooed
in cursive on her neck, spitting sixteen bars
in the backrow, as little white Mike beatboxed
“Candy Shop” and the whole class exploded.
Write about Zuly and Nely, sisters
from Guatemala, upon whom a thousand
strange new English words rained down on like hail
each period, and who wrote the story
of their long journey on la bestia
through Mexico, for you, in handwriting
made heavy by the aquís and ayers
ached in their knuckles, hidden by their smiles.
Write an ode to loose-leaf. Write elegies
on the nub nose of a pink eraser.
Carve your devotion from a no. 2
pencil. Write the uncounted hours you spent
fretting about the ones who cursed you out
for keeping order, who slammed classroom doors,
who screamed “you are not my father,” whose pain
unraveled and broke you, whose pain you knew.
Write how all this added up to a life.

Copyright © 2019 Dante Di Stefano. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 4, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

York Academy

When “Prompts (For High School Teachers Who Write Poetry)” came across my email the other morning, it struck a very responsive chord, reminding me of the two years I taught high school English and Latin at York Academy in Shacklefords, Virginia. It was my first job after grad school. I made a lot of mistakes, I learned a lot, and I never taught high school again. But I remember the kids.

Wes liked quoting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Ferlinghetti’s “Dog.”
Certamen Winners (I bluffed my way through teaching Latin III and IV.)
Dalton listening to George Thorogood at the 9th grade Christmas party.

55 thoughts on “A Glimpse into My Former Life

    1. Yes, I do look back on those two years fondly, although I’m still haunted by the fact that one of the kids I had in 8th grade English went on to rob the local hardware store the following year and kill the person working there.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Thanks, Liz. This was a poignant reminder of the way I used to think of high schools and the time I spent there in various capacities (although never as a classroom teacher). As a member of the Columbine community who just witnessed another high-school tragedy fifteen minutes from my home, I was having a hard time remembering a time and place where physical safety wasn’t the main concern.

    And I loved the reference to George Thorogood, who can still make me feel young!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ranee. I’ll consider myself fortunate for having taught (and attended school myself) when the primary physical safety concern was making sure everyone could get out of the building safely in the event of a fire.

      And yes, we will always be Bad to the Bone!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you ever noticed that when people write their stories, they remember clearly what happened until they were about 21. So many new experiences in those first two decades that embed into our long-term memories. The next decades somehow merge together – we remember snippets but never as articulate as when we were young. A profound poem. Poetry can express our deepest thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I haven’t really thought about it much, but you’re right. When I began to come to this realization when I noticed that my perception of time was completely skewed. The majority of my life did not take place before I’d even graduated from high school, contrary to how I perceived it. It came as quite a surprise, actually!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations! Your blog has been included in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thank you, Chris
    With teachers in my family, this felt very familiar.. certainly not an easy task, but I remember special teachers along the way in my school years, so long ago, and will always be grateful that they opened their hearts as well as their minds to us… as I’m sure you did.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dante Di Stefano captures it beautifully in his poem, doesn’t he? As for me, I’m teaching adults now, and what I’m finding is that they’re using the personal narrative to work through some very difficult and, in some instances, traumatic childhood and adolescent experiences. The main takeaway they want for their audience? That they’ve come out on the other side of these experiences whole and strong .


  5. Teaching is a tough job that deserves respect and support. I couldn’t do it and told the teachers I worked with when I went out on Child Protection calls. The funny thing is, they said the couldn’t do my job. Both require more resources and support than they receive.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m catching up on everyone’s posts, and that photo–absolutely priceless! I took Latin in college, and it was TOUGH. I can’t believe you taught it, too. Much respect.

    I’ve made a lot of mistakes this first year, but I keep telling myself that they’ll remember how I made them feel more than anything. I try to be kind and fun and supportive, and I imagine they remember you that way, as well. I mean, you’re nothing but kind and supportive to me, so I’m sure you made a great teacher!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This poem created an avalanche of comments including this one from me. I taught high school English and French for 3 years right out of college — a different era from the one portrayed by Di Stefan, but memorable students, nevertheless.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks! Most of my Latin is gone as well, except for the logical fallacies. Since I seem to encounter them on a regular basis, I remember those. (Ad misericoridiam, ad hominem, and post hoc being The Big Three.)


  9. Thank you for posting the poem, Liz. No doubt it speaks to every teacher’s heart! My thoughts certainly returned to students and experiences in my own classrooms, over a 26-year career (I’m now retired). It did add up to a fulfilling life, as I built relationships with my charges and witnessed growth in skills and knowledge.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Nancy. I agree that the poem would speak to every teacher’s heart. I so enjoy watching learning occurring before my very eyes. And for some reason, every time I see it, I’m surprised! It is indeed a thrill to be witness to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi, Ms. Gauffreau! (Okay, I’m fifty years old now, so Liz it is.) I just came across this post while doing some research about York Academy for a pet project. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve thought of you many times over the years.

    Being a high school junior while you were teaching was great for me. You introduced me to writings I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten at York Academy, for sure. (Take that as you will.) Am I surprised you didn’t go on to spend the rest of your life teaching? Not really. But you were actually good at it, and pretty inspiring to boot. You wrote in my yearbook, “Do we have a budding English major here? No, no, it’s too much to hope for.” I actually took that to heart, as that’s probably the first time I even considered what my college major would be. I actually DID go on to major in English, and I’ve been poor ever since. Thanks.

    Seriously, you were great. It’s so funny to know that this was your first job after grad school. I definitely thought you were a grown-ass woman. Can’t wait to explore your site a bit more and see what you’ve been up to.


    1. Hi, Monica. How wonderful to hear from you! Thank you so much for your kind words; they mean a lot to me. And you majored in English! I’m so pleased to hear that. After I left York Academy, I got a job in nontraditional higher education, and I never looked back. I still have my hand in teaching writing, although the majority of my job is administration.

      What is your pet project about York Academy? I would be interested in hearing about it. Thank you so much for getting in touch, Monica. You’ve made my week.


  11. I actually have no idea what (exactly) I want to do with the information, but I’ve been looking at old newspaper articles about both of the private schools I attended. Both of them are designated as “segregation academies,” which of course connects Black history to my own history, but what that means or why my thoughts about it even matter, I’m still trying to figure out. I’m not even sure whatever I might write would be for public consumption, or just for me to sit with for a while. Most of the people I’m still in touch with from YA (at least based on their social media posts) may not even be interested in hearing about this, and I’m not sure who else would care. Anyway, I’m thinking, and the research is fun and fascinating to me.
    Great to hear back from you!

    Liked by 1 person

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