Adrienne Rich

The School Among the Ruins

Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.

Teaching the first lesson and the last
—great falling light of summer will you last
longer than schooltime?
When children flow
in columns at the doors
BOYS GIRLS and the busy teachers

open or close high windows
with hooked poles     drawing darkgreen shades

closets unlocked, locked
questions unasked, asked, when

love of the fresh impeccable
sharp-pencilled     yes
order without cruelty

a street on earth     neither heaven nor hell
busy with commerce and worship
young teachers walking to school

fresh bread and early-open foodstalls

When the offensive rocks the sky when nightglare
misconstrues day and night when lived-in

rooms from the upper city
tumble cratering lower streets

cornices of olden ornament     human debris
when fear vacuums out the streets

When the whole town flinches
blood on the undersole thickening to glass

Whoever crosses     hunched     knees bent     a contested zone
knows why she does this suicidal thing

School’s now in session day and night
children sleep
in the classrooms     teachers rolled close

How the good teacher loved
his school     the students
the lunchroom with fresh sandwiches

lemonade and milk
the classroom     glass cages
of moss and turtles
teaching responsibility

A morning breaks without bread or fresh-poured milk
parents or lesson plans

diarrhea first question of the day
children shivering     it’s September
Second question: where is my mother?

One: I don’t know where your mother
is     Two: I don’t know
why they are trying to hurt us
Three: or the latitude and longitude
of their hatred     Four: I don’t know if we
hate them as much     I think there’s more toilet paper
in the supply closet     I’m going to break it open

Today this is your lesson:
write as clearly as you can
your name     home street     and number
down on this page
No you can’t go home yet
but you aren’t lost
this is our school

I’m not sure what we’ll eat
we’ll look for healthy roots and greens
searching for water though the pipes are broken

There’s a young cat sticking
her head through window bars
she’s hungry like us
but can feed on mice
her bronze erupting fur
speaks of a life already wild

her golden eyes
don’t give quarter     She’ll teach us     Let’s call her
when we get milk we’ll give her some

I’ve told you, let’s try to sleep in this funny camp
All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking 
above us to somewhere

Don’t let your faces turn to stone
Don’t stop asking me why
Let’s pay attention to our cat     she needs us

Maybe tomorrow the bakers can fix their ovens

“We sang them to naps     told stories     made
shadow-animals with our hands

wiped human debris off boots and coats
sat learning by heart the names
some were too young to write
some had forgotten how”