Recently I was asked for my favorite poem – in fact, there are many poems I love. But in the light of current events (my daughter leaving school) I would like to share this poem with you – in honor of her teachers of the past two years (they will recognize themselves in this poem), and all teachers anywhere in the world who can relate to this idea of teaching:
MRS. RIBEIRO (alias MRS. UNDERHILL)
I was visiting a school in Northern India when I heard it
for the first time in ages. It was barely audible above the shouting
of children – the squeals and laughter bubbling from the schoolyard
through the classroom windows. But it was there: the swish of silk
saris and the jingle jangle of bangles on the wrists like wind chimes.
This is what learning sounds like. I remember.
When I was five years old, the principal of my Junior School was
Mrs. Ribeiro. She was an Indian woman the size of a nightlight,
and she glided like a sailboat through the hallways of my school.
Once, when I got close enough to grab a fistful of her draping
silk sari, I lifted it to try and see whether she had any feet at all.
I thought she floated.
We begged to be sent to her office: the hanging plants like a jungle
above our heads, her quiet laughter. Adults needed appointments,
but we did not. And even when she was in a grown-up meeting,
all it took was a gentle knock on the door, a peek around the corner,
and she was off calling, Sorry dear. We’ll have to reschedule.
I have to see someone else about a very important matter.
It’s about a gold star. It’s about a new diorama.
It’s about a finished reading book one level higher than last time.
She visited every classroom, knew every student by name.
She spoke to us like we were scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes.
Musicians. And we were. My world was the size of a crayon box,
and it took every colour to draw her.
Once, on a New York City sidewalk, a group of women
in brightly coloured saris walked by and someone shouted,
Look, Mom. Look at all those principals!
My world was the size of a classroom. It was a tall as I could stretch
my fingers, calling, Please! Let me be the one to read to Mrs. Ribeiro.
Let me be the one to show her what I know.
Shirt. Pants. Socks. Shoes.
Cat. Dog. Bird. Fish.
Look how much I know.
She brought us guests and artists and a petting zoo.
They set up the cages in the parking lot
while we were still tucked up in our classrooms, unaware.
Rabbits and guinea pigs poked out their noses,
but Mrs. Ribeiro came to rest in front of the llama cage.
She and the llama considered each other for a long time.
She asked if he was tame enough to go inside.
The trainers laughed and told her he was plenty tame,
but he didn’t know how go up stairs.
So she led him to the elevator. And when the doors slid open
on the second floor, there stood Mrs. Ribeiro in her bright pink sari,
with gold bangles and a llama on a leash.
She floated from class to class, and we stared,
cheered, laughed, and shouted.
We tugged at her sari calling,
Miss, what is that? Where did it come from?
She made us wonder. She made us question.
She made us proud of what we had learned.
Shirt. Pants. Shoes. Socks. Saris.
Cat. Dog. Bird. Fish. Llama.
Look how much I’ve learned.
She taught us to share. She taught us to listen
when someone else is speaking.
And then she let us go.
We were dandelion seeds released to the wind,
she asked for no return.
We are saplings now. With gentle hands.
The girl with bright cheeks and messy hairpins
now works at an orphanage in Cameroon. The boy with
the colour-ordered markers is now a graphic designer in Chicago.
The one with the best diorama is now an animal activist
in Argentina. The girl who loved to read out loud
is now a poet in India. She let us fly.
So I find myself at the front of a classroom.
My students tug at my sleeves and ask me,
Miss, do all poets wear big black boots?
I pray for patience. For wisdom. To find a way to tame all the
peculiar animals of this world, to coax them enough to brave the
elevator, to see the doors slide open to my student’s gaping mouths.
All their wild wonder.
They worry about everything.
They worry about what to write.
They worry about their grades.
They talk over one another until I cannot hear them.
I tell them, Listen. Listen to one another like you know
you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians.
Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world.
Show me how many colours you know how to draw with.
Show me how proud you are of what you have learned.
And I promise I will do the same.
— Sarah Kay, No Matter the Wreckage