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Photo courtesy of Stephen Paris

Creative Nonfiction

The Ghost of a Poet

By Holly Hagman

          His desk was brown wood, not quite mahogany, but something solid and dark. It sat at the back of his classroom on the opposite side of the white board, adjacent to a wall of cream-colored cabinets. Inside the cabinets were stacks of blank composition journals, old copies of The New Yorker and The Paris Review and The Writer’s Chronicle, an anthology of the best poems of the century. There were also bookmarks, colored pencils in a metal coffee mug, and a poster that advertised April as National Poetry Month, folded tight, like the flag of a fallen soldier. 

*

          I looked through your bookshelf today, and I came to the conclusion that we would have been good friends.

*

          It was the middle of December when I sat in his chair for the first time – a black leather thing torn and tattered with minimal lumbar support. My ballet flats touched the floor as my chin skimmed the desktop in this Papa Bear spot much too big for my intrusive girl body. I reached for the lever on the side and raised the seat up three notches, my first disturbance of his public mausoleum. The walls were bare and beige, a skeleton of how they were when he was still alive. 

*

          The students miss you. I’m keeping the tradition of Free-Write Friday. It’s a great concept. It means normalcy, some connection to what they lost.

*

          I cleaned out his filing cabinets after the roof above them leaked during a rainstorm. Manilla folders filled with old lesson plans, poetry workshop notes, transparencies for the old overhead projector, all damp and smelling of mildew. 

          I thumbed through the files: things to save and things to discard, piles growing on opposite sides of the long computer table in the front corner of the room, the guilt, like reading someone’s diary, burning acidic in the base of my stomach. In a red folder, a document from a parent told the story of a gay student, of sexuality in the classroom, of whether or not those discussions were appropriate, of literature and censorship, dated 1999. Twenty years later, I felt his presence in the green ink that argued with the typed letter, fighting for artistic expression, a classroom where all students could love language and it could love them back. 

*

          A student said they wished you were here today. Honestly, I do, too.

*

          I added posters to the cabinets – quotes from famous novels like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird – all typewriter font on pale pastels. I put homework and notes and daily doodles on the whiteboard at the front of the room, the scent of Expo markers a constant, lingering company. I decorated the dark wood desk with a colorful day planner, a pink coffee cup filled with pencils that disappeared as quickly as I could replace them, piles of books, my own manilla folders. I kept papers to grade in neat piles that occasionally traveled home in a large navy tote bag. I wore burgundy pants and polka dots. I talked to students about literature and film. 

          Then, they would leave. At the end of the day or the end of a period or right before lunch I would stand in that empty classroom, aware that I was never really alone

  

          It is nearly impossible to teach in your shadow – to carry on the legacy you left behind. 

*

          The students were restless, haunted by the potential questions they could never ask. It seeped into their poetry and short stories: benevolent characters that looked like him, unexpected funerals, death and loss and tragedy splattered on the page. 

*

          Hannah wrote you a poem. They’re putting it in the yearbook. When she read it to me, we both cried. 

*

          He lives in the ink on the pages of his books, in the cabinets of fresh composition journals, in new pens, in beanbag chairs, in the iambic pentameter of a newly written sonnet. His students – our students – are not the only thing we’ve shared. Among the wooden desk, the leather chair, the cabinets of papers and pencils, we shared the passion for words, a love of language not so easily extinguished.     

*

Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University where she has been an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. She is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature and a guest blog writer for Longleaf Review. Her work can be viewed in The Citron Review, Complete Sentence, The Nightingale, and elsewhere. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs and spending time with her cats.