Those Who Don't Know History ...
Conjuring Up a 2022 Mr. O’Donnell
(Who I Think Was My 9th Grade World Civ Teacher)
On this sweltering July morning, Yosemite
on fire, trees down, power out all over
the Hudson Valley, executions in Myanmar,
a family shot to death in an Iowa tent,
another recording of traitors chanting
Hang Mike Pence on the 6 o'clock news,
I am on the back deck, the first cup of coffee,
scanning the parched yard, leaves wilting
in Patti’s garden, checking my phone for rain
in somebody’s forecast, then to The Times,
pointlessly hoping for encouraging news, a sign
the meek might actually inherit the earth,
or maybe just a break in the weather.
Which brings me all the way back to 9th grade,
World Civilization class at Wheatley High (still
imperiously posing as The Wheatley School),
where Mr. O’Donnell stands at the blackboard
in his wrinkled suit, white shirt, tie, a piece of yellow
chalk in his hand, scribbling a grizzly list of barbarians
from Atilla the Hun to Hitler. So what was his point?
I open the yearbook to see he went to Jesuit colleges,
so maybe he wanted us to learn something beyond
all the vainglorious myths, the litany of humanity's
achievements, our faith in love and beauty, things beyond
faith itself, that we are a merciless and feckless species?
Did he think, did he hope, that maybe, just maybe,
we children could do better if we knew the truth?
58 years later I realize Mr. O’Donnell’s blackboard
would not be big enough to contain the brutal tyrants
who would follow Hitler, Stalin, Mao into and through
the millennium, hordes of weak-eyed flabby devils,
little Napoleons posing behind phony ribbons and medals,
cleric’s robes, Armani suits, pressed guerrilla uniforms,
so I conjure up a teacher for 2022 in an open necked shirt
standing next to a large easel pad, Sharpie in his hand,
flipping page after page of names that make him nauseous,
hoping some empty-headed kid in the back row, listening
only for the bell to ring, might sit up, suddenly curious,
not about the dull, predictable pathologies of evil men,
but the flaw in our souls that leads us to idolize butchers,
cling to the pantlegs of oppressors who will shake us off,
kick us aside, rob us of our dignity, our freedom, our mortal
souls, even the gold in our teeth, bodies tossed onto
the scrapheap of human misery when our pitiful fawning
loyalty is no longer of earthly use to them.
–SL, July 2022, New Paltz, NY