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  • Inspired by Benjamin Weinberg's "The Talk."

    My first two published poems had appeared in my elementary (K-8) school magazine. The other poem, "The Borough of Kings," had been an homage to my home town of Brooklyn.

    More than just the day's news had inspired "Step Forward." My mother had taught English at an inner-city high school in the 60s and 70s. In addition to being her grading assistant, I had been her confidant.

    One day she would tell me about prostitutes "doing their business" in the teacher's parking lot. (I'd been literal-minded then, envisioning gravel cutting into bare backs.) Or about the nun who came upon a couple "doing it" in the ladies' room. (Nun: "You're not supposed to do that here!" Male student: "Well hey, man, where we supposed to do it?" Nun (thinking fast): "In the recreation room!")

    My mother had broken up knife fights. She described used syringes littering stairwells smelling of pot.

    Another day her stories revolved around the young woman who sometimes screamed in class. In and out of mental institutions, the student had just given birth but made sure to return to school to take her final exams, so that she could graduate.

    There was the gentle young man whose nature poems were heartbreakingly beautiful. Who had whipped out his switchblade and jimmied open the door to the still-locked teacher's rest room when my mother needed to use it.

    She had stared at him. "You?"

    He'd shrugged. "You gotta survive."

    The principal, my mother said, had told gang members that they could kill whomever they wanted, as long as they didn't do it on school property.

    My mother also gave me the tableau of three girls -- Muslim, Jewish, and Black. They were best friends. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war they said that if they could get along, why couldn't the rest of the world?

    I met my mother's best students on occasion. The high school literary magazine was pasted up in our basement. Once a year her top class took a field trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Stamford, Connecticut. On those days my mother wrote me a doctor's note excusing me from school for an "upper respiratory infection," so that I could join them on the bus.

    My home career as teacher's aide had begun shortly after I had learned my letters. First I had alphabetized exam papers, then graded them against a template. I made copies using a hectograph. I marked and arranged Delaney cards for student attendance. My work space was our dinette table,which shared the room with a black and white TV broadcasting images of body bags in Vietnam.

    (The TV is long gone and the wars have changed. But I type this story at the same, transplanted, table.)

    Eventually I graded essays. Simple, heartrending pleas for world peace, many of them written in looping script with circles drawn above the "i"s.

    When my own school sought poems from the eighth graders, I submitted this:

    Step Forward

    Step forward into the gloom, the doom,
    The rickety rackety way
    Of life.
    Step forward into the crowded,
    Riots and rackets engulfing the Earth
    Strained with a corrupt society.
    Step forward into the gunned
    And shunned
    Peoples of origins long forgotten
    And futures long withheld.
    Step forward into the tears,
    The fears,
    The years in which the snickering face of Death
    Cuddles her helpless human children
    In her iron grip.
    Step forward,
    And as you step forward,
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