I can remember Pat grinning. He knew that it would make me angry. Or frustrated. Or both, and that I would probably lose my temper and send him down to the office to see Mr. Mills, our principal. This, I knew, was what he wanted, and that was why the piece of wrinkled paper with the poem on it had ended up mixed in with the others already on my desk.
Sly looks were coming from some of the other students in the class; they knew what he had written and they were waiting to see what I would do. I surveyed the room from side to side and then from the front to back, and 27 grade five faces turned in various directions looking for something to focus on. Pat’s was one of them.
When the bell rang a few minutes later pandemonium broke loose as usual and the mad scramble for the busses took place. By 3:35 the room was empty and I was alone. After making sure that no one was peering at me from outside of the classroom I pulled his poem from the middle of the pile and reread it. On the sheet of three ring paper he had scrawled:
A Poem by Pat
Hair I sit, brokin harted,
Paid a dime and only farted
Nex time I’ll take a chanz,
Save my dime and shit my panz.
It was nothing new; during my time in the Canadian Navy I had seen this one scribbled in pay toilets from St. John’s Newfoundland to the West Indies and beyond. Nonetheless, I could laugh about it with the class gone for the day. I can also remember thinking that I might as well laugh now because by tomorrow this would have been around twenty-seven dinner tables and at least eight or ten parents — not to mention their daughters and sons — who would be waiting to see what I was going to do about Pat’s latest stunt.
I could blow up, of course, and Pat would get what he wanted, attention. I could send him to the principal and he would also get what he wanted. Disciplining always brought Pat the attention he craved. Why? A messy divorce, followed by an even messier custody case, had caused his mother to go one way and his father the other, but in the end Pat and his brother had wound up with dad. He was miserable, and his father, a logger, could only spend so much time at home with the children. While he was away they moved in with relatives. Later, a relationship was shaped with a companion from the same rural area but, try as she might, she could not take the place of the now distant mother. When dad was back there was peace; when he was in the bush all hell broke loose, at home and in the school.
The more I thought about it the more I realized that I would have to develop some sort of strategy for getting Pat on my side. But where to begin? I had to take a chance on a kid I knew was basically good inside but also tied up in knots not of his own making. I took the poems home, commented on them, and took them back to school the next day.
A Talk With Pat
You could sense the expectation as soon as “O Canada” was over and the day began. I swam around the bait all morning and waited until late afternoon to return the poems, holding Pat’s back until the very end. All of the children stopped talking and fell silent when I called Pat up to my desk. He looked defiant. I was smiling and spoke to him in a low voice.
Me: “Pat, I really liked your poem.”
Pat: “Yeah?” He looked surprised. He shuffled.
Me: “Yes, and I want you to have a chance to share it with the rest of the class.”
Pat: “Yeah?” He turned around and looked at the class. There was a smirk on his face when he swung around and faced me again.
Me: “Sure…I’ll help you with the spelling and perhaps you could illustrate it. A poem like this needs a good picture to go with it and I’m sure you could manage that, right?”
Pat: “Yeah, sure. Yeah, I could do that.”
Me: “Good. We’ll start tomorrow. In the meantime I’ll keep your poem here, in my desk. Tomorrow we can talk about where you want to publish it — you know, in the hallway, in the book of poems, copies to go home, and perhaps one in the school newsletter…”
Pat: “O.K.” he said, without batting an eye.
We began the editing and proofreading the next day. Working at my desk we talked a little about the spelling and art work for the soon to be published poem and a lot about other things — his horses, his brother, cutting up trees for firewood, the rabbits at home, and camping out with dad. We had not finished the final copy when the day ended but I felt sure that he had called my bluff and that the poem would go public for the whole world to see.
Pat did not come to school the next day, a Friday, and I did not see him again until Monday. When it came time to prepare the poems for publication he came to my desk and said in a whisper: “Ya know, Mr. Gow, I don’t think I want that poem in the hallway…or anywhere… I don’t like it anymore. I’d like to try somethin’ different. But I don’t know if I can write poems…I’m not much good at that stuff…”
I must have shown my relief when I nodded, said something like, “Well, let’s give it a try, Pat,” because he was quick to follow up with a barrage of ideas. Taking care of horses. Raising rabbits. Living on an acreage. Cows calving. Learning how to ride and rope. I said “yes” to everything he suggested and reached over to the shelf for more paper. When I turned back, his copy of the poem had disappeared. Later I found it in the wastepaper basket next to my desk, fished it out, and took it home.
The Turning Point
There was no overnight conversion of Pat from troubled kid to class winner. The outbursts still came but over time they began to lessen a bit. The turning point came when each child was given the opportunity to submit his or her most treasured piece of writing to the editorial board of a northern British Columbia writers’ journal, Treeline. The reply was almost instant: six in the class of 27 were invited to have their work published, and Pat was one of them. All of them gave their consent.
But at first he treated it like a joke. Then came a visit from one of the editors and her taping for local television of a class story and poetry reading, and Pat took it more seriously. Suddenly it hit him: “I’m a poet,” he kept telling me. And everyone else who was within earshot. Writing became a focus of his attention and he began to scribble about anything that came into his head.
However, the real triumph came the day we had a formal presentation of the fresh-from-the-press copies of Treeline. Pat was unusually quiet before, during, and after the presentation, and when school was out he came to me with a serious look on his face and said: “Whoever would have believed that I could become a poet?” I recall saying something very trite like, “Well, it just goes to show you what you can do when you put your mind to it.” But I doubt that Pat heard me. That soon-to-be dog-eared copy of Treeline went everywhere that Pat’s school bag went and in a real way it served to inspire him to keep reading and writing. His life continued to have its ups and downs but now he had a way of letting off steam, to the point where he would write about very personal problems and stuff page after page into his writing folders. These accounts became what he called, “My private stash.”
I took a chance with Pat and my bluff paid off. What would I have done if “Here I sit brokenhearted…” had been published and come to the attention of the whole small, rural world in which we existed? I’m not sure; somehow I doubt that I would have got out of the affair with a whole skin, given that on several occasions a local pastor had been in to inspect our school library for Judy Blume and other apparently unsavory books. Fortunately it did not come to that.
In the years that followed I was never again quite able to duplicate that sort of personal success with a student. But then, I never quite had another Pat in my class.
Today Pat is finished with school and somewhere in the work force, probably in a trade or working in the bush. I wonder if he is still writing poetry? I hope that he is.