One Hand Up: Poems by Josh Roark

By Josh Roark

Teaching is hard.  The kids are beautiful, but the job is ugly.  Though these poems could have arisen from any classroom in America; they came from my experience as a middle school teacher in the Mississippi Delta.   Please look up the Delta and see them and who they are.  More people should.


Keep a Few Dollars in Your Desk

Three teenagers die at the road’s little
bridge on old 82, a few miles out.
Concrete knocked down river swallowed, metal
bent back.  The kids ask you when, why and how
and the tough girl with scars and hollow laughs
says she was cousined to one of the teens,
could you help her to get balloons from dollar shack?
So they can be let loose and whole-town-seen?
Bus driver preacher—worn Bible in hand,
deskorange bus at back—expounds on texting
as the purple balloons ascend up high,
so blue and bare to all their upgazed eyes.
To the sky the young necks have already bent,
the highway’s silence too loud to listen.


Put One Hand Up, Lean Back

Seeing you write in your journal keeps them
writing. Their elbows press the desk with each
new sentence, and if, like them, you lean in,
a scribbled sort of hum can almost reach
your eager ears, a chorus of prayers,
and memories dug up, and secret thoughts:
fresh truth-blood spilt on a blank page (where
lie trophies of that fight between hand and thought)—

maybe their ears hear the latest catchy beat
of some new dance (there’s always some new dance)
in the quick squeaks of their fidgeting feet:
the nae nae of minds stuck in young romance—
and you want to dance too, be cool for once,
A few extra minutes, you say, nonchalant.


Let Them Say Goodbye First

You like the misfits the best, usually.
The boy standing there at the end of it all,
his pink tie in hand held out, his shirt stiff
and white across the shoulders. They know how
to make you shout, but choose to make you laugh
instead. Yea, I can tie it for you. The
boy doesn’t notice when you peel the stick-
er off the side—the shirt’s oversized, sure,
but all filled out with that youthful pride. You
give a low smile when he struts over to
the others, pink tie meeting blue tie meeting
green, all their bodies standing there puffed out
like marshmallows ready for the fire. You pause,
stare: their teeth flash in melody like a choir.


Answer Their Questions As Best You Can

They bear a weight seeming unbearable to you.
Their shoulders hunch together, bones pulled tight,
their legs like poles driven down, the flesh abused,
buried down further and further by the daily fight.
Just how much suffocation can these kids bear?
The up-crawling earth is almost at their minds,
their every other word a mask of learned despair.
Just how long till their voices sing out with rage to find
resentment—and someone to hate?
Hate for those that let history run loose-wild,
for those self-blinded to the man made fate
that drives down the other—man, woman, and child.
But might resentment be, these kids bravely ask,
just another way to keep from striking through the mask?


You’ll Need Therapy

You hear a faint instrumental playlist,
study music playing in your shoulders and
across your back. You reach for your wife’s hand
at the new year’s party when someone quips
and what do you do? Your lips and tongue twist
over the sounds that come. You smile and stand,
your back itches, Where’s the bathroom? You wander
down the hall, people talk of gyms and lists.

Your new clothes have a price. Your body leaves
the classroom, but you can feel its big eyes
across your back, its chin side-cocked as you leave.
You laugh and smile, but that black clip-on tie
sits coiled on the closet shelf like a gun—
too easy to forget the damn thing weighs a ton.


Keep A Scrapbook

black tiethe kid trying to be tough
with his eyes closed and his head
tucked in his elbow, but he’s
not sleeping, you know, you can
tell, your back wants to tense up
when you look down at his bluff.

the boy pinned to the white
brick hallway wall by your angry
barking, his fingers poking
at everything hanging there
while your words (nothing new)
paste him up on the wall to hang there too.

the girl with new braids
coal-dark and twisted on her
head as if she were spun up
on a potter’s wheel, the potter
obsessed with snakes, or sailor’s knots.

the young man preaching,
with his large body that could
hold yours twice over, a big
face too, with a mouth two fists
across and deep brown eyes, fingers
like gavels—you’d have to yell
at him in the crowded halls
between class, his wide palms
were always sticking to the
foreheads streaming past.

And the gym at graduation
the gym all filled up with their breath,
and their parents’ breath swelling
the bleachers, and Kirk Franklin
singing with them, shy voices singing,
and their bodies swaying almost together,
swaying together, poorly,
their low breath, breathing,
their fleshy breath, young bodied breath,
how could love forget the breathing of the young?

Joshua Roark currently lives with his beautiful fellow writer wife in Los Angeles, working as a homeschool teacher for young kids while pursuing an MFA from Antioch University. He also works as an associate editor and web manager for Antioch’s literary magazine, Lunch Ticket.  His poetry has been published in San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, Killer Whale Journal, 3 Elements Review, among others.

One comment

  1. I really loved Josh Roark’s gentle and imaginative use of language to convey feeling and empathy for his students. My favorite poems were “Keep a Few Dollars in your Desk, “Let Them Say Good-bye First,” and “Put One Hand Up, Lean Back.”

    Liked by 2 people

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