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  • Lockers slam in a clanging chain reaction
    A final chorus of yo mama jive
    echoes down the stairwell
    The tardy bell jangles
    Head down
    Late again

    Mr. Shellnut closes the door on my heels to make his point.
    Tall and thin, permanently at attention,
    shock of white hair and Southern drawl,
    An ex-reporter now teaching
    US history 1900 to the Present
    a required class for graduation
    us, his captive audience.

    Bicentennial babies, Class of 1976!
    We skipped off to school back in ‘64
    The same year Ruby Bridges
    Shined her shoes
    Gripped her lunch box tight
    And set off to change the world.
    Our cohort walked hand in hand
    or singly, across so many lines.
    To find Mr. Shellnut waiting for us
    where not so long before
    he had waited for a different class of students.

    Boys,
    short hair combed neat and slick
    white, short sleeved shirts
    all tucked and belted
    And girls,
    in carefully monitored hemlines
    never pants.
    And now he had us.
    Me, hair in one long braid,
    torn jeans, bell bottoms, shirt tails hanging.
    Them, afro picks jabbed into full, rebellious heads.
    The air heavy with the sound of protest and the smell of weed.
    If he sighed, I never heard him.

    Patiently, he explained,
    You can be a tutor or do a project.
    Tutoring? Dude? What else?
    Long evenings before exams our round table gathered at the public library
    Translating ancient cryptic texts
    Who wrote this shit
    If that’s what they mean why didn’t they just say so in the first place
    Until one by one by one I watched them nod, uh-huh.
    Now I think they finally saw
    fathers and mothers and grandparents
    emerge from the pages

    Later, in a moment of overblown pride I told the old man
    I should get half his pay
    seeing as how I was teaching half the class
    He looked down at me,
    straight and tall and thoroughly unbending.
    No smile
    No answer
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