On Not Caning My Students
Caning is effective punishment
for not coming prepared to debate,
for tardiness, for failing an exam,
for disrupting class, for disrespecting a teacher,
for not sweeping the classroom,
for not handing in homework,
for talking out of turn, for not having school fees.
Ugandan children learn through their backsides.
I hate the crack across the backs of their thighs
I hate seeing the muscles in men-students’
clenched jaws and in the teachers’ sinewy forearms,
I hate the shallow hiccoughing breaths, I hate
the girls’ screams, but I never say anything.
I’m not a source of enlightenment.
I’m sickened by teaching this language.
Gerald tells me I have become this switch
in his life, I am his pulse; like a stick
I want to be splintered, burned, stripped into
fibers and woven to usefulness, but
all I am doing is not caning my students.
Kiganda women: Secondary School
(Fildah with Stanley Kunitz I)
Educating women is a waste of money.
Women in secondary school find boys
and prostitute themselves. The girls are dull.
Women lack focus and ambition. Women should
only be educated enough to raise their dowry
enough to be intelligent conversationalists
for their husbands. School is for men. Jobs
are for men. Women should produce children.
Education leads to rebellion and a lack of morals.
Fildah, what was it that drew you to him?
Was it the phrase drives you up the wall or the notion
of the body as borrowed dust? Or was it his phrase
utility took fantasy for wife that made you
come to me after class, asking to borrow the book?
What was it that led me to give it to you so freely,
thrusting it into your hands, telling you to enjoy it,
bring it back on Monday, keep it forever,
I can get another? Fildah, you’ve set yourself apart,
I’m sorry, you’re turning inward, turning away
from duty, watching your own mind grow;
Fildah, don’t let me step into your mind,
your place. I’ll change it. School is for you,
jobs are for you, lay your mind in the book,
your lost clarity, my phantasm of utility.
for Senono Vicent (9/1984 – 9/2003)
If I could choose, if it was possible, if I was worthy, if babies’ homes weren’t crowded,
if aunts and grandparents weren’t overburdened and I could take it all back
to the point where no man had sinned, I would rather be an angel than a saint.
I would rather float close to God and close to men than be canonized by men.
I’m dying and I see a light, I’m dying and I see my creator, I’m dying
and the heat which fills my veins finally calls my lifelong bluffing
and I leave. Life’s been so long in coming and so quick in going – somewhere between
watching my parents turn hollow and smelling the rainy season come on again
and again life must have happened because now it’s stopping and I can’t find
the part where life happened at all. Once, madam was explaining a sonnet and the turns
it can take at the end and the tensions its form carries and I thought my life is less sonnet
and more rhymed couplet – beginning, it is nearly done and ending, it is still being propelled.
My lantern is fading, my coal is cooling. I want to leave this world and find another,
not stay remembered here where only Ugandans would notice me looking out
from prayer cards. They’ll pray and I’ll have to be the mendicant for their
eyelid lesions and pointed ribs, their mouth sores, night sweats, and patching hair;
so let me be an angel, let me watch again from above. I’ll stop begging and
start living; please give it up, please give me up, please – I want to go and meet them –
the saints I prayed to, the angels who watched over me, the God who made me
in his image. I want to see if he has shrunken muscles, too, and know if his mouth
grows dry in the night so he wakes swollen and cracking. I want this heat, this choice.