Sep. 5, 2009

Every Day, the Pregnant Teenagers

by Cortney Davis

assemble at my desk, backpacks
jingling, beepers on their belts like hand grenades,
and inside, their babies
swirl like multicolored pinwheels in a hurricane.

The girls raise too-big smocks, show me
the stretched-tight skin
from under which a foot or hand thumps,
knocks, makes the belly wobble.

A girl strokes her invisible child,
recites all possible names, as if a name
might carry laundry down the street or fix
a Chevrolet. I measure months

with a paper tape, maneuver the cold stethoscope
that lifts a fetal heart-swoosh into air.
Then, shirts billowing like parachutes,
the girls fly to Filene's where infant shoes,

on sale, have neon strobes and satin bows-oh,
Renee, Shalika, Blanca, Marie,
The places you'll go, the places you'll go!

"Every Day, the Pregnant Teenagers" by Cortney Davis from Leopold's Maneuvers. © University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer and activist Jonathan Kozol, (books by this author) born in Boston (1936). He grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, went to an elite boarding school, then studied literature at Harvard, where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. But he dropped out of Oxford and moved to Paris to try to write a novel. He lived there for four years, then went back to Massachusetts. He was pretty sure that he wanted to get a Ph.D. and become an English professor, but he wasn't sure what to do for short-term work.

Then he saw an ad for summer tutors for kids in Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston, so he thought he might as well give tutoring a try. And he found that he loved that work — loved kids, loved teaching — so he scrapped his plans for a doctorate and became a public school teacher in Boston.

Since then, Kozol has written many books about the sad state of public education in this country, and about how segregated our schools still are, all based on his own experiences in classrooms and working in poor neighborhoods. His books include Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (1991) and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (1995), about kids in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx. He said: "Of all my books, Amazing Grace means the most to me. It took the most out of me and was the hardest to write, because it was the hardest to live through these experiences. I felt it would initially be seen as discouraging but, ultimately, sensitive readers would see the resilient and transcendent qualities … that it would be seen as a book about the elegant theology of children." His most recent book is Letters to a Young Teacher (2007), in which — through a series of letters — he combines his opinions on vouchers, No Child Left Behind, and racial segregation with constant reminders about why teaching is so important and beautiful.

He said, "Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win."

It's the birthday of Robert Fergusson, (books by this author) born on this day in Edinburgh in 1750. His family was relatively poor, but there was a scholarship at St. Andrews in Edinburgh that could only be redeemed by members of the Fergusson clan, so he took it and went on to get a good education. He was part of the "Cape Club," a group of young artists who hung out at pubs and told jokes and stories, played pranks, sang, and recited poems. In 1773, he published his only volume of poetry, Poems by Robert Fergusson, with just 36 poems, 27 in English and nine in Scots.

But he struggled with depression and religious confusion, feelings he called "the Blue Devils," and by the beginning of 1774, he had to give up his job. He drank too much, and then he fell down the stairs and seriously injured his head, and he was put in an asylum, where he died two months later. He was just 24 years old, and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Twelve years later, Robert Burns (books by this author) arrived in Edinburgh and went to find the grave of Robert Fergusson, his inspiration. Burns called Fergusson "my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse." He paid for a headstone for Fergusson, and he modeled his own poetry after him, writing in the Scots language as well as standard English.

It's the birthday of outlaw Jesse James, born in Clay County, Missouri (1847). His family grew hemp and kept slaves, and when the Civil War broke out, his older brother, Frank, went off to fight for the South, but Jesse was still too young. Frank got involved with a Confederate guerilla group, and in return, Union militiamen hunted down the James household. They beat up Jesse and tortured his stepfather almost to death. Angry and frustrated, the next spring 16-year-old Jesse left home and joined a guerilla group led by a man known as "Bloody Bill" Anderson. The group was brutal — torturing, mutilating, and murdering Union soldiers and innocent people, and wearing the scalps of their victims on their saddles.

After the war ended, the James brothers did not stop. They were bitter that the secessionist cause had lost, and that Confederates in Missouri were disenfranchised, not allowed to vote, preach, or hold certain offices. And they enjoyed a life of violence. For a few years, they parted ways and came together again, robbing banks here and there. Their big break came in 1869, when Frank and Jesse robbed a bank in Gallatin, Missouri, which they thought was operated by the man who killed Bloody Bill Anderson. They shot the cashier in broad daylight and escaped through the middle of a posse who was outside waiting for them. They didn't actually get any money, but the robbery made Jesse James famous, and he loved it. He started masterminding robberies that would get as much attention as possible, and he wrote letters to the public, which the founder of The Kansas City Times published, since he himself supported James' Confederate loyalties.

"The Ballad of Jesse James," a traditional American ballad with an unknown author, glorifies Jesse James with the words:
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man
He robbed the Danville train
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain …

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