I was as bad as the next kid and got punished just the same, writing off what I’d done wrong— 150 times, 500 times, depending on the kind of day the teacher was having. I may as well have been writing off “I will not think in class” or “I will not believe social studies is useless.” Sixth-grade study hall had the acoustics of an abandoned warehouse, but there were times I could hear the hiss of the pencil lead raking across the standard-ruled paper as I went about my punishment. It moved more easily the blunter
it became, the lead’s line widening, growing lighter, quieter, and soon I was noticing the silvery characters, each cursive I different from the one on the line above, leaning like a crude sketch of a human figure trying to stand upright in a fierce wind. The punishment for having words was to write them, as though writing something down was a way to lodge it into your mind rather than a means of casting it out forever. I didn’t know how anyone else in the room felt about it, but my own voice was being rent from my throat
and flattened onto loose leaves of cheap notebook paper, the end product of immature pine trees machine harvested and pulped, acid bathed and bleached nearly white. Anything I might say was as ephemeral as the wind under the door. A football coach sat at the teacher’s desk diagraming pass plays on a legal pad. This was the last year anyone could be compelled to write off. From here on out it was paddlings—they still did that then—and suspension. I had no idea what came after that but I knew it was waiting. We outgrow everything,
even our punishments. Hardened to the harshest penalty, there’s always another one out there that will put us in our place. Even that day I could see the penciled I was changing, bent a little more at the start of each new line, some trivial sin handwritten and edging down the page. [End Page 523]
Bobby C. Rogers is a professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. His book Paper Anniversary won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, was nominated for the Poets’ Prize, and received the Arlin G. Meyer Prize in Imaginative Writing.