“The Lesson” by Michael Hettich

Michael Hettich


In that second grade classroom, Mrs. Circle said
each of us carries an ocean inside
bigger than we are, like happiness, and full of
fish that live nowhere else in the world
and tides that are pulled by our heartbeats, and low tide
sand bars to wade far out in the bright sun.
She taught us we can learn to swim there by jumping
out into the water where the water is still
and shallow, holding our breath and moving
our arms and legs gently, gently—try
for yourself she suggested, and we all closed our eyes
sitting there at our desks, while the snow fell outside
and the radiator whispered. I could hear the clock tick
as we held our breath and swam without really
moving our bodies, like jellyfish, across
the beds of coral that were filled with many-colored fish
whose names didn’t matter, Mrs. Circle said,
as long as you let them come to you—
they are like angels—and nibble the tiny
air bubbles that cling to the hairs along your legs and arms.
Feel how they tickle, she said, Take a deep breath,
dive down underwater as far as you can.
Do you see your shadow down there on the sand,
following your body? That’s another form of you,
a kind of memory, swimming down below
your only solid body. Don’t forget it. Then she clapped her hands
and we all looked up, happy to be sitting there
with our young teacher in that drafty classroom
in the age of extinctions and nuclear bombs
we hadn’t been taught about yet.

from Rattle #26, Winter 2006


Michael Hettich: “I don’t remember how old I was when my father sat me down beside him on the living room couch to read to me from his favorite poets, but I do know that I was young enough to understand very little of what the poems meant, and that their meaning didn’t really matter at all. My father seemed another person when he intoned these poems, and yet he seemed exactly himself. And I felt very close to him then and very much myself: happy and pregnant with vivid possibilities.” (web)

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