Mudlark Flash No. 6 (2000)

Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy has poems in recent issues of COMMONWEAL, CONFRONTATION, CORTLAND REVIEW, CREAM CITY REVIEW, MUDLARK, and WORLD ORDER, as well as in URBAN NATURE: POEMS ABOUT WILDLIFE IN THE CITY published by Milkweed. He is a consultant to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation's poetry program and has been an educational advisor to a number of PBS television series on poetry including FOOLING WITH WORDS with Bill Moyers. Murphy's series of poetry lessons for teachers is online at He teaches English and creative writing at Atlantic City High School and directs the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway held annually in Cape May.

Thorough & Efficient

1- Dump | 2- Bomb | 3- Fight | 4- Alarm | 5- Gunshot
6- Alarm 2 | 7- Beauty | 8- Fire | 9- Coma | 10- Integrity
11- Losing Vision | 12- New Teachers | 13- Classified
14- Insecurity | 15- Honor Student | 16- Free Period
17- Release | 18- Safe Sex | 19- Aging | 20- Fourteen

                                                21- Names

The phrase "thorough & efficient" comes from the New Jersey state law mandating each child shall receive that kind of education.


1- Dump

How he did it, assume it was a he, amazed
even the most cynical. The guards on patrol
in the corridor had seen nothing.
Alerted by the stench, the drawing teacher
found the load neatly curled like soft serve.
How'd he do it? everyone asked, not why?
It has been months since the shitting began—
a classroom here, a classroom there,
here smeared on a window, there
a teacher's desk. It brings out the best in us,
one teacher joked. Another called it art.


2- Bomb

It is the third of March, and for the third time
you evacuate the building in a storm
that pushes its acid fingers in your eyes,
your ears, your nose. This time you don't return
to the building. Rumors flare like small fires
in rain. Bomb in F Wing, it turns out,
by the ceramics room. Kid picks it up, hands it
to the teacher tending the kiln, says he found it
by the door. Looks like. It is—
You have a student in a wheelchair that shakes
in shivering rain. Let's go, you say after an hour,
and roll her to your car, lift her onto the seat.
She is too light. A few bones in a wet coat.
You fold her chair away and drive her home.
No one misses you.
No one asks where you had gone.


3- Fight

It starts in the lunch room
when a napkin flutters to the floor.
Butterfly wings.
Then a container of chocolate milk
arcs over the canvas.
Then blank.
Then the sky screams food trays.
Then blood.
Then a chair finds someone's head.
Then more chairs.
Teacher who knows better
gets kicked in the balls.
Another, smacked from behind,
kisses the floor.
The fight breaks out
of the lunch room, runs
through the halls.
Classroom doors open
like pine cones in fire.
Then everything is molten.
Then it flares down.
The hallways release arms and legs.
Then the nurse. The ambulance.


4- Alarm

After the third false alarm of the day,
the principal alerts the staff to stay
in their classrooms. Malicious Pull.
Do not evacuate the building.
How his voice is controlled anger.
Trouble is, he's too late. Waited too long to make
his decision and announce it. Half the building
is already outside. Walking to their assigned area
to meet their teacher
who's supposed to take attendance.
Trouble is, after the third alarm,
no one wants to remain in the building
there on the horizon like a bad dream.
Trouble is, the principal continues to speak
through the PA. No one hears him.


5- Gunshot

What's that? asks the student teacher
reviewing the lesson he's hoping to perfect.
It sounds like... I say, running for the door
where I stop before opening it. I turn,
look at him. If it is, I ask, why
would I want to open the door?
His voice, a notch higher, says, I don't know.
I return to his desk, say, let's go over
that lesson again.


6- Alarm 2

After the fourth Malicious Pull, everyone waits.
No one knows what to do. The students eye
the loudspeaker, a silent god, as if it has answers.
No one moves toward the door.
Wait for the announcement, no one says,
but everyone does.
But it never comes. Everyone is still.
Eventually, the alarm stops.
The school is breathless.
No one has moved.
No one has left his desk.
Classes return to learning something.
The planned lessons.
No one dies.
No one evaporates.
Everyone is learning something.


7- Beauty

Hey Teacher. You're really smart, aren't you?
the new kid asks. Here for a week, transferred
from a different school, a different state. You make
these jokes, but no one laughs. I wasn't sure,
at first, but you keep doing it.
Me? Smart? I reply. You must have mistaken
me for someone else.
No, she insists. I mean it. At first I was afraid
to laugh. Shit, I was afraid to smile. You're
funny, I know, and you may be smart too.
I think so. I'll let you know.


8- Fire

Between the 50th and 60th
Malicious Pull of the year, they finally install
boxes over the alarms. You've seen them.
Clear plastic on a hinge. Red lettering
that says, Pull for Fire. Only these
are equipped with a trigger that zaps the pullee
with indelible dye so his hands will be a sign
that says, I pulled it. For a while, everything
settles into conformity.
Teachers go on with their teacher things.
Some try to teach. Some don't.
Some of the students try to learn.
Some don't. After three days it starts again.
Fire erases the curriculum. Burns it down.
A trash can here. Bathroom there.
Whatever can burn, burns.
A can of lighter fluid sprayed across a carpet.
A water pistol loaded with gasoline aimed at a door.
Why pull a false alarm to empty the building?
Why get that dye on your hands?
Start a fire.
It's a teacher who pulls the alarm,
who gets purple hands.
The idea flames through the building.


9- Coma

A pedestrian. Exits a sandwich shop
where cut students hang instead of class.
Brushes one of them. 'Scuse me, he says.
You know what's next.
Fuck you! the kid shouts and punches him.
Stumbling for his feet, he drops his sandwich,
sees there are three of them, makes his decision,
runs across the avenue.
I don't know if he grabbed his sandwich.
They catch him.
You figured that out, haven't you?
Haven't you? By now?
And taught him a lesson
he should have learned in school.
But didn't.


10- Integrity

I can't, says the message
on the answering machine
from the student teacher
who never returns.
I don't have it in me.
You have integrity.
I see what you do.
How hard it is.
How you do it anyway.
How you make it work.
Them work.
I can never be that dedicated.
I can't be like you.
I am afraid.


11- Losing Vision

Some schools have fraternities where students
rush to become part of something, to install an identity.
A sense of who they are. Where they fit in.
In spring, some gangs recruit without posters or parties.
They decide who's in, or he's out. Out.
One young man didn't want to join, tried to flee
the brothers who chased him along the avenue
into the wheels of traffic. The next day, one of his buddies
goes berserk in school. Runs through the hallway
punching everything human, which is to say,
everything soft. Boy students. Girl students. Teachers.
Security. Punches a glass lens into the eye
of a boy who didn't know what was happening.
Who hadn't seen it coming.


12- New Teachers

This one hired by phone the day classes began.
This one the week after that one had quit.
This one was knocked on his can.
This one got bit.

This one older than the retiree he replaced.
This one had laid bricks with mortar.
This one got sprayed with mace.
This one popped an aorta.

This one said he was an actor.
This one an African chief.
This one came from India.
This one was a thief.

This one flew in from the coast.
This one lived on a boat till it sank.
This one saw the holy ghost.
This one drank.

This one got beat up at a party.
This one hauled out by the police.
This one left for the seminary.
This one had been a priest.

This one let go from a private school.
This one sold drugs and was fired.
This one couldn't take ridicule.
This one was inspired.


13- Classified

After he reads the front page describing the war
where he works, and the heavy promises that claim
to restore order, and before he peruses the obituaries
to cross off those he knew, he checks the want ads.
This day a prospect: Experienced teacher sought for University
of Sarajevo. Four month position. No salary. No health care.
No insurance. Housing tentative.
Send vita and references.
His wife, crying, talks him out of it. Dashes his hopes. Says
It's not that bad, is it? Things could get better. Couldn't they?


14- Insecurity

With the help of a search committee of concerned citizens,
parents, an administrator or two, they hire a guy to run
security, a retiree from the government, a deputy marshal
from our nation's capital. He displays a bronze name plate
and badge on his uncluttered desk. That's when things start
to disappear. Televisions, computers, a/v. All things tied down,
locked away. Doesn't matter. None of it is safe.
He hires friends to roam the halls, so many, no one knows
who or how many are real, how many pantomime.
This we learn after. Itís all a misunderstanding he says, taken
out in cuffs. The students see it. Cheer. Security, yes.
Phony resume. No one checked his references.
I'm innocent, he says.
I didn't do nothing.


15- Honor Student

The day after the day the boy was shot
point blank, sitting in a car that wasn't his,
it hit the paper in the back end of the local section.
Honor Student, 17.
He was taking ninth grade courses
for the third year in row.
In a row is how you picture it that day.
In a row with another empty desk.
No one knows what he was doing in that car,
that late, that night. No one knows the answers.
Services To Be Arranged.


16- Free Period

There's no such thing, I tell my "we be's."
We be bad. We be freshmens.
I get paid a lot of money to teach you.
C'mon, they say. We don't wanna do no work.
Our other teachers give us free periods.
You never do.
You're paying for it with your lives, I say.
Those teachers are ripping you off.
We learned enough this week, says one. We need a break.
Next week, we can return to learning something.
Tell you what, I say. How about a story?
Oh, all right, they complain, but don't expect us to answer questions.
Just listen, I reply. Just listen. "Whenever Richard Cory
went down town, we people on the pavement looked at him...."

Man, a student says when I finish.
Sounds like Donald Trump.
Nah, says another. He'd never kill himself.
He too greedy
My mom works for him, adds another. She says—
He says—
She says—
Just listen.


17- Release

The infamous siblings break loose from the self
contained classroom and mardi-gras through
the corridor, their teacher in pursuit.
The first is a smile, waving Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!
The second covering her face, clings to her brother
saying, Don't Look at me. Don't Look at Me.
The third, falling behind and catching up, falling
and yelling, Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You!
the caboose to a train that puffs through the hallway,
waving, hiding, and cursing the world it knows.
Don't look at me.
Fuck you!


18- Safe Sex

We're beyond arguing about the essay I cut out
of the newspaper. Doctor, former 60's guy, suggests
abstinence, not prophylactics, as the only way
to ensure safety. The kids are furious.
He had his fun, they say. He doesn't want us
to have ours. It is no longer a discussion.
Not a debate. I am getting slaughtered.
I try to lighten it up. What do you call couples
who practice rhythm? I ask. Parents!
A few get it. Laugh. Most don't.
Lars, the exchange student, says in Sweden,
a virgin is someone who hasn't had sex in three months.
Most laugh. It's broke. We can talk again.

After class Chastity asks me for her work.
She's been suspended for playing with a condom.
Which class?
Bad timing. Should've waited for science.
I ask, Do you know what your name means? No.
I tell her.
Oh yeah, my grandmother, she said something about that.


19- Aging

You're old, this girl says.
The year is new. I don't know her name yet.
Why do you say that? I ask.
You look old.
Oh, how old do I look?
Real old.
Oh, how old's that?
I don't know.
I am 44, I tell her.
I knew it, she says. I knew it.
My grandmother is younger
than you.


20- Fourteen

She comes at last
to make up the final
she missed the day before.
I thought she had been beautiful.
Today, her face is pasty
where it is not swollen purple.

Rough night? I ask.
She glares at me as if I were her pain,
mumbles, Big party. Big mistake.

Happens to the best of us, I say
without thinking.
What happened to me, she replies,
could never happen to you.
In a million years. Never!

Oh, I say. I think I... Just give me
the test, she says. I got to get outta here fast
before I get sick.


21- Names

Tunisha Tuyet Tybee Tylisa Ubong Wadeedah Bergina Brynne Cheria Chiemka Clayton Tiesha Tomica Tonia Toshira Trina Trishonda Jagrutti Jalila Jenayi Jere Kamee Kendra Shauna Shayree Sheena Shiana Shleah Kenisa Ketan Kim-Thuy Kotoya Kysan Ramesha Ranon Rasikh Ronesha Alishaun Anjana Anthu Asiza Ayisha Lambros Larina Latisha Latoya Madia Shoshana Siteem Skylar Sukyee Sumeeti Mahinaz Marielle Nadirah Ngan Nirav Purvi Haleem Hamod Ieaska Ikwo Imgard Rony Samirah Sandip Santos Shalini Shantaye Shantya Shaqual Shara Shariff Abdus Adnan Aisha Aja Akei Akilah Susbar Syliesha Syreeta Ta'Sheka Tashana Tatsheema Taysha Tayshana Theakos Cordell Dhruvit Dionicio Edifon Elefteri Wileen Winter Yumica Yuriy Zorayma Fatima Genii Gloryvee Gopal Granville Grace.

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