by Marlena Johns
Marlena “Zen” Johns has lived an adventurous life, raising twin sons and teaching high school for twenty-one years. She was Teacher of the Year for AHS in 2011-2012, a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction and a University of Chicago Distinguished Educator. One of her plays was performed at a local community center. She won a prose contest sponsored by the University of Houston. Two of her poems are set to be published in the upcoming summer and fall issues of Restless, and Five 2 One magazine, and three are featured in an anthology titled Let’s Talk about Being Human.
What do I say of the place where I spent 20 years of my life?
Standing, sitting, kneeling, stretching, bowing down
It is evolving.
It is devolving.
It is chaos incarnate.
It is absolute symmetry.
The smile and the light in a student’s eyes, revelation
is as beautiful as a sunrise turning into a butterfly that flies off into the great blue unknown.
The furrow of concentration is also a thing of wonder.
But when that butterfly is forced to bang his head against the same brick wall
That will not budge, or bend, or crack
That wall called testing.
And WE have to lead that broken winged butterfly to that wall-
Knowing that he cannot climb it, or fly around it, or burrow under it, or go through it because of
The inner voice that has him defeated before pencil hits paper
When we have to hand him that test and that pencil and that answer document
And watch for 5 hours as he batters himself through reading and writing
Knowing that he sees nothing of the beauty of the words,
Only the fog of misunderstanding.
Knowing that even if he thinks of the perfect thing to say . . . it will come out
Back, side, upside down,
garbled beyond recognition.
A little of us dies.
A little piece of our sanity crawls in a corner and howls at the moon.
For we are a part of the machinery of the world that is grinding him to bits
Telling him once again that he won’t make it,
That he’s not good enough
Feeding him inadequacy with each circle that he bubbles in.
And we do it in December, and in March and we talk about it so many times that the words
Feel like dust and death on our tongues
Fingers of poison creeping into the cocoons while the caterpillars are transforming
So that instead of letting nature take its course,
Letting learning envelop them and nurture them and support them till they are ready to emerge from the chrysalis,
It constantly pokes holes in that fragile shell of psyche
And we- the teacher, the test proctor, the after school tutor, the Saturday school coach
Are the weapon.
Teachers, who only want to provide a sanctuary, for the beautiful butterflies that will glide on the first morning’s dawn,
We are the predator, the torturer,
And we die a little each day knowing that this is not what we were meant to do,
Not what we signed up for,
Not what we bought supplies for, and sat in trainings for,
wrote lesson plans and decorated our rooms for
We wanted to be part of a forest, strong trees with deep roots where the cocoons were safe
And loved and treasured
And they grew.
We wanted to be life changing catalysts, the perfect environment of stimulus and safety.
We wanted to be nectar, the hosts that feed and shelter the unformed.
But the system made us, both predator and prey.