Sunday Poetry: September, The First Day Of School, by Howard Nemerov

September, The First Day Of School
I
My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

II
A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

– by Howard Nemerov
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This is one of those frustrating poems to write about, where I cannot force myself to focus on the meter or the poetic technique, because I’m closest to the subject. Forgive me for a moment, then, while I focus on the thought instead of the poem.

Nemerov captures so much of what my parenting experience has been in this poem. You are given this little bundle to take care of – immobile to the point you can lay it on a pad on the table while you drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, dependent to the point that it would starve if you didn’t feed it, and ignorant to the point that the pet dog has a vastly superior vocabulary.

Then everything changes.

I’m particularly wowed by the final two lines. “Even our tears belong to ritual.” It is a ritual, isn’t it, that we wind up taking our children to schools – society demands that we act out this strange act, leaving our children to others to teach? (Homeschoolers aside.) We do this to our children, as our parents did it to us, and it is a truly horrid ripping, no matter how we prepare ourselves and how convinced we are that we have the best school and the most excited child. It is a societal ritual, where all parents symbolically surrender their children to society, and all children accept that they will need to face the challenges of institutions without the protective gaze of their parents. All lives are changed on the threshold of schools.

And the final line is not a prediction; it is a plaintive prayer. “But may great kindness come of it in the end.” Nemerov was a teacher – a professor at Washington University, a few miles from my childhood home. He knew education and academia, and he does not offer an unconvincing declaration like “This is for the best”, or “Education will expand their worlds”, or even “They’ll increase their earning power if they make the right choices”. He doesn’t even attempt prosaic persuasion – instead, he joins those of us who have abandoned our children to society in a prayer that some greater kindness, some happier outcome, will follow from the tears of division on the schoolhouse steps.

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