If you’re a teacher, you probably entered the profession because you love monkeys. Well, not monkeys per se, kids really. Ok, now I have you all confused. Try reading this poem first.
To Help the Monkey Cross the River,
which he must
cross, by swimming, for fruits and nuts,
to help him
I sit with my rifle on a platform
high in a tree, same side of the river
as the hungry monkey. How does this assist
him? When he swims for it
I look first upriver: predators move faster with
the current than against it.
If a crocodile is aimed from upriver to eat the monkey
and an anaconda from downriver burns
with the same ambition, I do
the math, algebra, angles, rate-of-monkey,
croc- and snake-speed, and if, if
it looks as though the anaconda or the croc
will reach the monkey
before he attains the river’s far bank,
I raise my rifle and fire
one, two, three, even four times into the river
just behind the monkey
to hurry him up a little.
Shoot the snake, the crocodile?
They’re just doing their jobs,
but the monkey, the monkey
has little hands like a child’s,
and the smart ones, in a cage, can be taught to smile.
It’s easy to interpret the sniper “helping” the monkey as a conceit for the teacher educating a student. After all, I believe that my students must cross that river to literacy, that without the ability to communicate and understand, they’ll struggle to succeed and enjoy the “fruits and nuts” that make life rich. And for many of my students over the years, education has provided them some protection against the threats of life: poverty, racism, class conflict, all those snakes and crocodiles that never get shot even though they continue to menace and destroy. And the fulcrum in the poem – the word “but” – does serve to remind me that sometimes in the process of hurrying and pushing my students to swim toward graduation on the opposite shore, I forget that education isn’t always liberating for every child. So, yes, the poem speaks to me.
But the poem should speak to more than just teachers. After all, the narrator, sitting “with (his) rifle on a platform high in a tree,” is not a lone gunman. He’s part of a system that equates success with all the little monkeys reaching shore. And each individual in that system, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unwittingly, plays a part.
Who is in that system? Teachers, yes, but also headmasters, superintendents, principals, deans, college counselors, parents, even the monkeys themselves. The reality is that no one person can change this system, or that any one system, new or old, will fit the needs of all people.
But the people struggling within this system do need empathy; they need to help one another recognize what it means to be a part of this system. For this reason, I think we all need to start by recognizing that very few teachers want to be gun wielding prodders seeing their students as potentially drowning or threatened monkeys.
For instance, I love poetry, and I love teaching. Yet I also recognize the truth in A. E. Housman’s words, “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out . . . Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” I’d love to explore what it would mean to teach poetry within that understanding. But the AP Literature test, which I am preparing my students to take, has a very different perspective on how poetry should be taught. As one of the test preparation book states, “Whether you abhor poetry or eat it for breakfast, whether you think poetry is cool or hot, scintillating or dull – none of that really matters on the AP exam . . . Most literate people would probably argue that poetry should be read for pleasure. The poems on the AP exam, however, are not put there for your enjoyment or appreciation. With luck you may enjoy reading them, but you needn’t praise their artistry or revel in their emotion. Your task will be more mundane – to read each poem, figure out its meaning, examine its structure, and analyze the effects of poetic techniques that the poet brought to bear.” Ugh. That’s just plain depressing, but the writer of that test preparation booklet is right. That is the exam’s structure and intent. And if you (colleges, administrators, college counselors, teachers, parents, and students) want students to do well on the exam, part of that process will require someone grabbing a rifle, climbing a platform, and taking aim at monkey heels.
In the future, hopefully the educational landscape will look very different than it does today. There will be more joy, autonomy, connection, and engagement. And I am grateful for all of the people out in the front working hard to make that vision a reality. However, I am equally appreciative of all those individuals who remain in place charged with managing this difficult transition. Ultimately, they too are leading us to a place down the road where we might explore ways for all of us to disarm and swim alongside those monkeys.