How to Ask

first published by great weather for MEDIA


Audre Lorde asked, “what are the words you do not yet have?”

I ask my students to bring to class the largest sack they can find. Made from forest or skirt or their least favorite weather pattern.

But it must be the curvature of empty, I add.

I arrive early and some of the students are sucking on the neon haze of their cell phones. One travels their neck and shoulder to places I’ve never been to before because of the music collected in the drum of their ears.

When it is time, I ask them to clear their desks of everything but their sack.

(They are quite used to these odd requests from me.)

I am wearing pants, color of crushed moss, with long-distance pockets.

Dig long fingers—once described as emaciated pianos—down deep and lift out as many question marks as I could fit inside.

I dump them onto desk and ask my students what they see.

Lines. Curls. Arches. A mountain?

Each student receives a question mark to place into their sack. The ones who insist get more.

We walk around the room with our voices, practicing how to use our question marks.

Lorde wrote, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

I urge my students to rise. They clutch their sacks, which beg to be filled.

Here is when I begin the list of what will go inside our sacks:

  1. the discolored fist-marks on skin
  2. the hisses, hauntings, hunted parts of us
  3. mirrors or any reflective glass that forgets to disclose our most important bits: our insides
  4. every pronoun that mispronounced us
  5. all the no’s incorrectly heard as yes
  6. our childhood (optional)
  7. the memory of that time someone told us to let go of reaching because arms are never long enough to get us out and through
  8. every single box which has boxed us in
  9. that scar hidden behind a different one, shaped like an EXIT sign
  10. the words: I can’t

Our muscles grow vocal chords, working hard to lift what now overflows.

Some students are still confused. Several are crying.

Audre Lorde reminded us, “We were never meant to survive.”

So I ask my students, what can we do to remain?

I can tell them all about how classrooms felt like cliffs to me and I jumped more times than I can remember. That the few times I remained were because a teacher gave me a sack to fill with words. And questions. And dreams. And poems.

I can tell them that I still hoard questions marks in my pockets and beneath my tongue because there is so much I do not know and cannot claim to understand.

I can tell them that for every time I was incorrectly pronounced, I could feel my mouth’s zipper get thicker and stronger and tougher. Creating my invisibility.

But it’s not about me. So, I wait for them to decide how to feel. How to react. How to respond. Give them paper to write on and words to read to fuel their question marks.

To keep them here a little longer.

Which keeps me here too.


notations from a present-day teacher and formerly-frustrated student

first published by great weather for MEDIA


  1. I thought it was because of the desks, which were never quite big enough to contain my well-read anxieties. Always entertained by the carvings of other restless minds, I frequently ran out of classrooms, cloaked in my invisibility.
  1. They call me teacher now. Professor. Mis-pronouning me, but I let them.
  1. I spent much of senior year in high school in a small classroom for other detainees with behavioral issues. They didn’t like that I chose my skin to carve instead of the gum-stuck desks. They didn’t like that I skipped gym class because I couldn’t articulate why I felt so uncomfortable in the girls’ locker room.
  1. A student shares with me a history of mental illness and a desire to keep trying to exit. I think about all the ways to convince this student to remain, knowing words are too much like band-aids: they cover up, but the wound remains. I do not share that I am a survivor of myself as well. I do not announce all the ways I tried: Kurt Vonnegut the first time, Diane Arbus more times than I could count, couldn’t bare a Hunter S. Thompson or Hemingway (but knew others who did), oven could not hold me like Sylvia, too afraid of water to Virginia, tried to Sarah Kane myself twice, too many Kurt Cobains and Brautigans that I couldn’t bare to join the list, thought about a Spalding Grey, not bold enough to Yukio Mishima, but something still keeps me here.
  1. When I got into graduate school, I thought I’d be finally be okay.
  1. These students are like notebooks with hard-to-read-but-worth-squinting-for footnotes and hidden pockets and four leaf clovers stuck into the pages.
  1. Even amongst other poets and imaginators, I had a difficult time committing to being alive.
  1. As a teacher, I think about every book on my book shelves and all the ones I still need to read and how to climb so many pages into a semester without them losing track or losing faith. So I Audre Lorde them and James Baldwin them. So I Zora Neale Hurston and Claudia Rankine them. I Gabriel Garcia Marquez their minds. I Vera Pavlova and Naomi Shihab Nye them. Give them Allen Ginsburg and Amiri Baraka. I Rilke and Junot Diaz them until they cannot breathe. Until finally, they gasp, feeling the smoke of poetry and magical prose envelope them. Changing their shape. Sweltering their minds open.
  1. I wasn’t even supposed to graduate high school. 41 days missed, sophomore year. Failed math and can’t remember going to physics. Maybe they felt sorry for me. Maybe they hoped giving me that paper would keep me from climbing further out.
  1. I fill the classroom with blank pieces of paper. Tell them: these are your boxes. Think of all the times you’ve been presented with squares and labels which do not match who you are. This is your time to fill it with your So, I watch them approach their box. Fill in with words like: human, mother, biracial, Hispanic, poor, student, wife, bisexual, alive, battered, left behind, a question mark.
  1. I memorized the offices of every guidance counselor I ever had. Ms. Lefthand. Ms. Rosenblum. Ms. Garguilo. When I would forget how to swallow all the grey in me, I’d sit and they’d hold me with their ears and eyes. And also Ms. Herkus (7th grade English teacher) and Ms Runquist/Soback (creative writing teacher) and Ken DiMaggio and and and and.
  1. They expect me to forget them. To lose faith in them. I understand how difficult it is to keep walking through doors, sitting at desks never big enough for all the handouts, putting names on things they don’t always understand. They expect me to stop caring, stop noticing them, stop coming. But. They are the ones who keep me here. Head out of ovens. I hang on now. Persist. Hoping they will to.