Slates and Sums


All of us coveting the same wish,
a classroom buzzing
heatedly with children,
acquisitive —
please, please don’t let me be
the one to get
a slate with a broken bit.

Transacted into wooden frames
slates are opaque surfaces
from which emerge
at the scratch of a slate pen,
silent hieroglyphs.
The straight grey symmetries
in fours and sevens
the bulbous fullness of threes.
I love fourteen
and the parallel lines of equals.

Writing words the slate pen squeaks
as if over-extended.
Sometimes it breaks.
We have sponges in sponge boxes which we wet
mooning, under the outside tap
or with spit.

Slates are handed out with deft rapidity
by boy monitors.
Girls and dunces by unwritten law
are passed cracked ones.
They proceed like stone leaves
out of the tomb of the school cupboard.

The cupboard houses acrid ink
metallic-smelling, iridescent-coated nibs
red rubbers, blue Readers
long, narrow Spellers.
The warm wood scent of blond rulers
is good enough to eat (and we do).

Slates with breaks are like rift valleys
organic, massive, a view of Africa,
a murmur apart from listless teachers
heavy-lidded children
hot classrooms.
They contain a life we will never live
encased in their seamless
and elephantine hearts.

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