Honest Glimpse into Hard Moments: A Review of “No Barking in the Hallways”
I spent some evenings this week with “No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom,” by Ann Bracken (New Academia Publishing, 2017). I enjoyed a brief talk with Ann about teaching when I read at Wilde Readings, which she hosts with Laura Shovan, Linda Joy Burke, and Faye McCray at the Columbia Association Art Center. We shared similar experiences and it surprised me that I hadn’t yet read “No Barking in the Hallways.” Maybe something in me knew to save it until I needed it; seems I needed it this week. In this long, cold season, with a late Spring Break, I find reassurance in Ann’s poems; in the way she illuminates the complexities of struggling students; the way she weaves measured hope into her lines and students’ stories, and the way she makes all of this, the institution of education, more human.
Ann crafts unlikely images into her poems that immediately fuel compassion for students, such as describing one boy as sitting “...crumpled / like a discarded origami bird.” (p. 24). One of my favorite poems in the collection, wistfully illuminates student strengths, some not always evidenced in the typical demands of curriculum.
All They Want Is Another Option
The boys fold white sheets of looseleaf
into paper airplanes with sleek wings.
The only passengers are the complaints
about their expiring chances to pass the graduation tests.
They sit at their desks as if drowning in bucket seats
of meaningless terms like mood and tone.
But when we flee the classroom and
commandeer the parking lot for flight testing
their planes soar high and far, like powder in the wind.
The boys shout out their dreams
as if to boost the acceleration of their jets.
If only the timbre of their hopes
could outwit the arbitrary
prison of the classroom.
Who can’t see their mechanical genius
in the circling planes?
“prison of the classroom” well, I hope not and am sure Ann wished not. From her poems, as well as her introduction, I see that we both wish for classrooms filled with joy. Sometimes it works out like that. This poem provides a beautiful moment of that. But the reality Ann drives home is that the classroom can at times be a dispiriting and violent space. This honest assessment, delivered in impactful, often painful stanzas, warrants notice and serious consideration, as teachers, parents, humans. Although I find some of the poems relatable, the collection overall challenges me to continue to grow the joy and to work toward every one of the potential best outcomes.
Here’s another poem that inspires me.
Chas in the hoodie
stands coiled and ready,
a boxer anticipating a left hook
He murmurs a vibrato stream
of hushed cuss words.
Bastard coaches just don’t know talent.
I’m better than all them shit-faced guys
who made the team.
I’ll show them.
His brown eyes peer at me under the hoodie.
What you lookin’ at, lady? he sneers.
My easy hello catches him off-guard,
then I slip in a sidewinder punch of news.
“We’re going to work on passing that high school exit exam.”
I ain’t doin’ no writin’ and readin’ crap.
Chas tells me
Besides, I can’t pass no tests.
But when I step into the ring
and go a few rounds of one-to-one tutoring with Chas,
he gradually eases out of his hunched pose.
His I can’t morphs into I’ll show them.
Chas in the hoodie
takes off his gloves
for a one-two victory jog.
He struts across the stage
and raises his diploma in his fist.
In addition to extending an empathetic look at our students, “No Barking in the Hallways” welcomes space to acknowledge the humanity in teachers. I am grateful for my job and feel particularly well-suited to my current position, so I intend none of this as a complaint. I gain valuable insights and perspectives from my students everyday, but still end some days more exhausted than inspired. Given teacher demands, as well as sometimes feeling mystified to find myself in such an uber-social profession, it is refreshing to read a poet who exposes fears, sorrows, and frustrations, things teachers tend to swallow, with candor and honesty. The acknowledgement of a teacher’s larger context as thinker, poet, mother, individual, reassures me in my own complexities being essential, not at odds, with my profession.
This is not to imply that “No Barking in the Hallways” is only meaningful to teachers. I read a few of these poems to my son. He interrupted me on the first with “relatable” and liked them all. He’s not typically big on poetry, but there’s something liberating and comforting in a collection wrapped around attending school, a common shared experience for most of us, in a way that’s real and brave, even when the treatment is a bit harsh, maybe especially when problems are exposed. “No Barking in the Hallways” provides a glimpse into one Special Educator’s challenges with the education system and resistant learners (“edu-babble” the poet’s voice might retort (p. 19). Teacher’s Survival Kit explains, “You want to dwell in possibility / so you imagine a field full of sunflowers.”