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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

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Aug 02, 2022


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