A Fling With Ferlinghetti
Excerpted from Take Off Your Hat and Spit Out Your Gum – A Teacher’s Memoir
By Melinda Ehrlich (Copyright 2012)
Mr. Flynn. He wasn’t exactly my arch-nemesis as Sue Sylvester is to Mr. Shue on the popular TV series “Glee,” in which the hapless glee club advisor is relentlessly humiliated by the coach of the cheerleading squad. Yet I was a brand new twenty-one year old student teacher, a naïf so green with idealism that I was sure that Ferlinghetti’s poetry would be a hit with my Southampton High School juniors. I was being supervised by a fairly hip cooperating teacher, a married man of thirty-one who gave me a reasonable amount of free rein in the one English class I was teaching. He sat in the back of the room every day, taking copious notes that he handed to me at our daily conferences, after which he had a weekly powwow with Mr. Flynn, the English chairman.
One time he caught me off guard with his flippant comment, “Oh, and try not to reach up when you’re writing on the blackboard.” He didn’t have to explain; I often crafted mini-dresses out of garments that were intended to be long blouses. Now I was self-conscious about what he had seen. And that meant a roomful of sixteen year old boys had seen the same thing! How would I be able to face them again and had I now lost the one iota of credibility I had worked so hard to gain? The next day I arrived in a sensible pantsuit.
As a spirited English major, I was fired up by the Beat poets, so I thought, now that I have a captive audience, wouldn’t it be great to share some of their works with my students? So I made copies of one section of a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem from the collection entitled A Coney Island of the Mind. When I handed out the rexographed copies, at least a dozen kids pressed the purple-inked papers to their faces and sniffed deeply. There was something about that duplicating fluid that attracted like flypaper. There was no evidence that they were getting high, so I just called it idiotic. I thought I was being really witty when I announced, “Okay, when you finish hallucinating, please read the poem.”
Fast forward a day or two. I had already run out of pantsuits and I was back in a mini-skirt. Suddenly I was summoned to see the English supervisor before I went home that day. What could he possibly want? Maybe a job offer once I graduated? I fixed my hair, applied a little lip gloss, tugged at my skirt to lengthen it and off I went.
The second I stepped into his office, I was greeted with a fragrant cherry tobacco aroma It impressed me as being so academic. The distinguished gray-haired, piercingly blue-eyed Mr. Ernest Flynn sat on his swivel chair, pipe in mouth and immediately addressed the “problem” minus all cordialities.
“Miss Grisham, I understand you taught a certain poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti to our students this week,” he began.
“Yes – I did.” Now I was perplexed. I had been taking a modern American poetry course as a senior at Southampton College this same semester and thought to incorporate what I was learning. I knew my cooperating teacher appreciated the Beat poets, so what was the problem?
“Are you aware of the kind of material you were teaching?”
“Uh-mm, I think so. It’s part of a collection called A Coney Island of the Mind.”
“Well, what justification do you have to be teaching phrases such as this one?” He pointed to line fourteen in Part Four, which contained the following phrase about the dropping of the atomic bomb: “nutless Nagasaki survivors.”
Indeed it was an antinuclear war poem, but he could not get past the fact that some of the survivors may have been sans testicles. Should Ferlinghetti have used the word “castrated” in its place? I was so intimidated; I had no recourse. The students in my class were probably clueless anyway, as I had never explained the line to them. I know I turned red in front of Mr. Flynn as I lamely apologized for teaching something “so inappropriate.” Having lost every shred of dignity, I turned to walk out, teetering as I continued down the hall. I was probably a little teary too.
I was rapidly learning that you must always know your audience and this English chair at Southampton High School was my Lord High Executioner. He could make or break me. For the rest of the term I tiptoed around the curriculum, more paranoid every time I saw him. I completed my student teaching assignment a few weeks later – with a satisfactory rating. I was not offered a job in Southampton though I would’ve loved to have settled in that idyllic town.
Six months later I headed off to teach in the largest urban school system in the county: the New York City Board of Education. There I endured – even thrived – for over thirty years and unlike Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” I did not go home and put a bullet through my head. I taught a lion’s share of great poetry (including Ferlinghetti’s anarchic “I Am Waiting”) with several students even submitting prize winning poems to contests.