At the scent of coal smoke or orange peel
memories come flooding in. Sweeping compound,
the merry-go-round, the slide that burned my legs,
baking potatoes in the furnace coals, ink wells
and the secret passage in the girls’ cloakroom.
Over the river–Emmanuel Creek–
and through the pasture, to my country school.
I walked three quarters of a mile
on the gravel road alongside the pasture.
It dipped down to the creek and back up again,
Big kids on bikes coasted down the hill
as fast as the wind and all the way
up to the schoolhouse where we learned
to read and write and do our sums.
Geography and civics, spelling,
penmanship and so much more–lessons
from our young teacher whom I adored.
She prayed for us and then she led
as we pledged allegiance to the flag
the eighth grade boys raised first thing in the day.
Worship for my teacher grew each month
when she went to the county seat and brought
armloads of books for me to read:
Grace Livingston Hill and Peter Pan,
The Bobbsey Twins, Black Beauty, and Nancy Drew–
my wonderful new friends and their adventures.
I practiced hard to make my scrawl graceful,
like the flowing script my teacher used
to write our Bible verses on the board.
During recess at Equal Rights School
the boys chased gophers with a baseball bat.
They kicked the can and played “keep-away,”
hide and seek and blind man’s bluff.
I sat on the pump base and read my book.
I remember the time I found a nest
of tiny newborn mice, blind and downy pink
like pussy willows. I should not have told.
On my next visit to the privy
the floor had been swept clean. The mice were gone.
I was scared to death when my turn came
to stand in the stairwell and struggle to pull
the rough fat rope to ring the bell.
I’d gaze up high and all the way down
to the cold cement floor below.
When the school day ended, we did our chores:
clapping erasers on the stone front stoop,
sweeping the floors and dusting the desks.
The flag was lowered and folded just so,
brought inside and solemnly put away.
I picked up my homework and empty lunch pail,
put on my coat and trudged home,