Doug Van Gundy

Teaching Eighth Grade Math

I want to tell them all so much,

not so much

about polynomials or how to work equations

with signed variables, but rather about the ways I know

that they can save themselves the heartache

of merely becoming themselves. I can still

remember the fear that they are trying to mask

behind indifferent faces and bleached blonde bangs.

I can still taste that terror

bitter and metallic

a flavor that diminishes but never leaves

your tongue, a flavor that grows

to be a part of the taste of your own mouth.


They try so hard to convince themselves

that they need nothing from me,

that they know all that there is to know,

that some of them succeed.  The inconsolable,

unreachable ones are the ones I want to gather

into my arms and squeeze until they stop struggling,

until they break into tears and admit

that they are alone and scared—just like

in a made-for-TV movie—but

I know that my wishes far outreach

any chance of that happening. Still,


to the pretty girl in the front row seat who smiles

coquettishly and at thirteen wears

makeup, gold rings and a delicate chain

around one pink ankle, I want to say,


slow down, it all comes fast enough.  I want to tell her

to leave her face and toenails unpainted, to avoid

the high school barracudas.  I want to say,

early ripe, early rot

but I don’t.  My own awkward history,

my fear and blunders and estrangement mean nothing

to her, or any of them.  They must unravel

their own perfect blanket

of childhood before they can truly see

the world around them, before they can make their kinked

and knotted threads into something they can hide in,

before they can realize that while they can always knit

their lives back together, it will never be

the same, or as large

or enough.



“Teaching Eighth Grade Math” is from A Life Above Water, (Red Hen Press, 2007).