Poems by Melissa Quirk

Mind the Gap

Teachers are asked to bridge the gap

The expanse between achievement

Of at risk populations

Versus their less at risk counterparts

But set apart

For a moment that

The population as a whole

Is increasingly at risk

When a fifteen year old student

Shoots a random pedestrian

As initiation

And snapchat feeds

Sing their support

For this shooter

Out of ignorance

Or fear of reprisal

We must mind the gap

When the gap is an

invisible ache that

Snakes into the softest parts

Of humanity

So that women’s wombs are


But riot inciters are

Gently brushing away indictments

Like dessert crumbs from the linen tablecloth

We must mind the gap

When Socioeconomic disparity

Means trauma

Means IEP

Means no one home

Means lack of access (internet and human)

We must mind the gap

When the gap between

What I know about this child


What I don’t know I don’t know about this child

Leaves enough room for a whole person to get lost

We must mind the gap

When my carefully designed lesson,

My meticulously prepared instruction,

My Pinterest-inspired classroom

Are torn to shreds by

A trauma-induced outburst

We must mind the gap

Because in the space between “my”

And “our”

Between teaching and learning

Between compassion for


Living every day with

There is the conjugation of growth

where I grow,

He grows, we grow

So we must mind the gap

Reflections of a Teacher During Covid:

What I miss most about my classroom is the smell:

That new book, dry erase marker stench,

That seventh grade boy after lunch funk,

That “please don’t notice how vulnerable I am” stank,

That clorox wipe, pencil sharpener dust aroma,

That curious mind, open face, eager-to-please fragrance

I miss the odor of unflappable resilience in the face of learning something new

I miss the candied sweetness of “aha” and

Spontaneous “teachable moments” just springing forth

What I miss most about my classroom is the sight

Color splashed onto bulletin boards

Alongside a growing “scrapbook” of photos taken each week

Color splashed onto lessons

Given in real time

In real space

In real connection

Color splashed into voices . . .

What I miss most about my classroom is the sound.

The chaotic chatter of hallways filled with

Teenage buzz, rumors, and cheers;

Clusters in classrooms, by lockers, on sports fields,

Cacophonous laughter erupting

As bells schedule days into

Tidy packages of collaborative learning, questioning,

challenging each other, challenging themselves,

challenging me.

the howling moan of an unleashed heart

the explosive heat of the bursting soul,

the whispered plea of a desperate desire,

The inextinguishable brassy boasting of the

grandstanding champion, newfound

glory in academics, so brilliant. . .

What I miss most about my classroom is the light:

Window blinds Open –

wall-sized panes streaming sunshine

Into open minds and wide eyes

The turned off fluorescents, walls lined

With strung up sparkly icicle lights;

Keeping pace with the faces alight with

The intimacy of middle school friendships;

Lamps standing in corners; spraying glow of daylight bulbs

Blooming and glowing minds growing, hearts knowing,

That here they are safe. Here they are home.

What i miss most about my classroom is breathing the same air

With their despair, with their struggling minds,

With their humor and graceless silliness,

That air is our sustenance.

That air is now deemed toxic

Breathing that air

It’s What I do,

I want to tell my students,

What I miss most is

each of you.

Education in America

Students come in my room

Laughing and gossiping,

tripping over each other’s feet and words

Students come in my room

Worried about grades

About who doesn’t like them

And who does

Students come in my room

More varied than the box of crayons on their back-to-school list

With open minds and hearts

Or hearts and minds they want help opening

They come with a need

For an audience

For routine

For unconditional acceptance

For food

For safety

For discipline

They come with a desire

To be heard

To learn

To test their voice, their strength, their wits

To be held accountable

To be held to a high standard

To be held in respect

The students bring their needs and desires

In an open lunchbox

They smile into my face and ask me about my morning

Or shout into my chest about the resistance they feel in their heart

They make known their needs

Their desires

And they come into my room

They come to me

Not because I am someone special

But their requests demand that I become someone special:

Someone they can trust

Someone they can count on for truth, for safety, for encouragement.

These students come to me,

And you ask me to put them in a box

Label their skills

According to terms that can be tabulated into a tidy set of data suitable for political discourse

They come hungry


Distracted by parental prison sentences

And news about guns in other schools

I ask you for help

You write new legislation

New “standards”

I accommodate by creating new curriculum,

Taking additional courses that I pay for myself,

Modifying the lessons and assignments for individual learners.

I ask you for help:

What I need is more social services in the community,

More counseling support in schools,

More training on traumatized children,

More time to just “be” with them

More focus on creating and nurturing a whole child

You train me in standardized testing preparation.

What I need is ways to answer their questions

About algebra and essays

about abandonment

About a president who separates children from their mothers

about 17 dead students in Florida.

You ask me to put a gun in my desk.

I no longer ask you for help.

I turn to the students

To their parents

To my colleagues

Together, we create a community

That can cry today and stand together today

That can commit today to a goal to reach tomorrow

Together, we create a community

That can be productive and have fun

Because we talk together

Create a community of respect together.

We don’t sweat the numbers at the end, but set goals for our own steady improvement.

We don’t threaten with weapons

And are learning to be more aware of the weapons of our words.

We work together.

And I defy any legislature that tries to stand in our way.

Perhaps our approach will help us reach your goals.

Perhaps it won’t.

Either way, I’ll know that I’m part of the village creating a better generation.

And, yes, perhaps one day

I will fail

We will fail

And one of our students will be as lost as that young woman in Nashville,

Or that boy in Florida

Or in Sandy Hook

Or Columbine

But odds are our community will be better “armed” to face them

With empty desk drawers and full hearts.

How to Be a Middle School Teacher

(for those of you crazy enough to want to try)


Wear comfortable shoes

Offer more praise than critique

Don’t be mean

When you are mean, or wrong, or being unreasonable


Reward curiosity

Reward daring to make mistakes

Don’t grade everything

Don’t take it personally –

That goes for failures and successes.

Hand sanitizer takes Sharpie off of anything


Be there before school

Be there after school

Be there

Go to their games and recitals

Perform on stage with them

Once in a while shock them by being as silly as they are

Always look for ways to learn from them

Remember that you will never truly understand what their lives look like from 3pm to 7am.

Try to understand what their lives look like from 3pm to 7am

Know at least one verse of a rap song

Make a “secret handshake” to greet them at the door

Greet them at the door


Make learning meaningful.

Remember that part of your job is to help them learn how to be people.

Look them in the eye

Don’t discipline; coach behavior.

If you think that sounds too soft, you will fail.

Know they will be miserable sometimes

Know that it isn’t always about you

Know that sometimes it will be about you, but keep your affection for them anyway.

Take a personal inventory: is there any other job you could be happy doing?

Yes? Do it.

No? Read on.


Befriend the secretary, custodian, and cafeteria workers; they can make or break you.

Ditto with the IT guy

You will want to work through lunch.

Don’t work through lunch.

Don’t grade everything.

Terrible accents work great to get their attention.

So does putting things in song.

Integrate art – even in math class.


Know the “one time educational use” copyright law and

Photocopy judiciously

Or surreptitiously

Modify. Be flexible. Teach the student, not the test, and the test scores will come.

Talk to your colleagues

Talk about stuff other than school.

Make lists to remind you of the important parts of your job.

A-Frame Bench: a love poem 

Picture, if you will, a wooden structure nestled among the trees of an old forest where planks are arranged like a capital A to provide a bench for sitting. Picture the reader of this poem sitting cross-legged here as she speaks:

Wake up.


I will hold you.

Here in the lap of this triangle,

Rest your head and nestle in.


There is much to hear


Wake up.

Feel the air rushing through.

Let it whip  back your hair

If it will

Embrace the soft caress if it gently comes.

Keep your cheeks

alive in anticipation

When the air is still.

Pay attention.

Notice. With synergy,

Even the small grow strong;

With synergy,

Even the small grow strong

Each acute angle

Braces these walls.

This trinity of refuge

Of teacher, student, and all that is sacred.

Wake up.


In this shelter

Where you rise above the wet.

Where you hover between earth and sky

Be brave.

Have faith.

Know the rain cannot drench you

But you can still soak it all in.

Soak it all in.

Wake up

Breathe in the sweet damp and the

Smell of soil enriched by

Generations of aged snags

Dig deep


Hear the stories, the

Dead and decomposing history

Soaking into young roots;

Learn the memories of

Your original Mother

See all ages woven into

All that you breathe in;

Join the Young saplings rising up

All around us.

Wake up

Own your space in this world.

Part of nature, yet woman-made

In this space so small you feel your largeness.

Take up space.

Let me shelter you.


For a moment

In this capital A

Where the roof points to heavens you cannot see.

Cannot believe.

But continue to hope.

Rest here in the triangle

between heart and lap

At home in this

Indoor outdoor

Between place called


And live

The Teacher’s Lament

Toss out the textbook

Reach the children where they are

They don’t care what you know until they know that you care


Every day

Be creative

Let each child learn at her own pace

In his own way

Revise your plans when you learn what they know

Let some kids move on while others get retaught

Don’t let them get overwhelmed

Don’t let them get bored

Keep up to date with your grading

Keep up to date with state standards, common core

Keep up to date with professional development

With licensure

With flu shots

Keep a student centered classroom

Let them take the lead

But don’t forget the IEPs

You must meet every need

And though they may resist or chat or gossip, bully, or rumble

Keep your spirits high, your temper in check, they will hear every mumble

So those choice words that may come to mind have no place in your class

Contact the parents if there’s a problem

Contact the parents when there’s not.

Give freedom to learn in the manner best suited to each of the 27 students before you.

Do it all in 41 minutes, then begin again with another group whose needs are, of course, unique

Every child is a snowflake

Teach bell to bell

41 minutes


Shuffle in a couple dozen more

41 minutes ding

Desks and chairs scrape on the floor

Why aren’t you out at hall duty?

Why is your room a mess?

Why don’t you take better care of yourself.  Looks like you could use a rest

Maintain classroom discipline

Let them pick the rules

Be consistent with consequences but treat each as individuals

Keep your classroom stocked with kleenex

Pencils and band aids.

For this you will be paid well.

Well, you will be paid.

It can be quite overwhelming

You might lose sight of why

You took this job while waitressing

Or writing curriculum in july.

Then you’ll get a facebook message,

An email or a call

Or you’ll run into an old student at the

Library or mall

And they’ll tell you how you mattered

That your words and actions past

Had a meaningful impact

A positive influence that lasts

And if your heart soars in that moment, hearing all he overcame

If you take delight in her success

That changes this ballgame

(Even if you can’t remember him or her by face or name…)

Your memory may be tired,

but now your teaching spirit is not,

so you sharpen up those pencils

and return with all you’ve got.

What do you value about being an educator?

I never planned to be an educator.

My father was a teacher.

My aunt was a teacher.

My uncles were teachers.

I knew they were not paid much, and they did not hold the place of respect and prestige I had imagined for myself.

I wanted to be a doctor.  Actually, I wanted to be a famous actor of stage and screen, but decided I would go to medical school so that I would have “something to fall back on.”

Yet here I am.

Like so many other educators, being a teacher was not so much a career choice, but a personality trait, something about me that I could not escape.  Whether as a swim instructor, camp counselor, babysitter, substitute teacher, tutor, or acting coach, I was somehow continually drawn to helping others learn.  Even while living the life of a struggling actor in New York City, I found myself not waiting tables, as the cliché would dictate, but doing in-school theatre residencies to make ends meet.

So I guess it makes sense that during senior year at Mount Holyoke, as graduation was fast approaching, I threw my hat in the ring with the then-new Teach for America program.  (Actually, a friend nudged me, “You’d be so good at this!” and since I hadn’t found another job yet, I figured, “What the heck?”)

That was thirty-two years ago..

And now, just last week, someone asked me: what do I value about being an educator?

Education is said to be a great equalizer.  Give a man a fish . . . you know how it goes.

When I was recruited by Teach for America in 1991, our motto, indeed our mission, was that “Every Child Can Learn.”  This seemingly simple truth is more challenging to turn to reality when one considers the vast inequalities inherent in the educational system.

Just as I was beginning my career as an educator, Jonathan Kozol published his groundbreaking study, Savage Inequalities, revealing and enumerating the vast imbalances in, among other things, school districts.  It appalled me to learn that more was spent per head annually in the Bronx Juvenile Detention Center than was spent to educate that same student before being incarcerated.  It disgusted me to realize that there was a marked disparity in how schools were funded in Manhattan versus Brooklyn versus the Hamptons.

How could education be a great equalizer if not everyone was receiving the same education?

Then I entered the Houston Independent School District.  Twenty-one years old. Wide-eyed.  Naïve. Brimming with optimism.  I would change everything.

After being shuffled around as the one-year-old TFA program found placements for my corps, I finally landed at a middle school in inner city Houston teaching seventh graders who had been with subs for six weeks.  My 20’X20’ classroom was beige: beige walls, beige floors, beige ceiling, and no windows even to cast a shadow.  The fluorescent overhead lighting highlighted the carved-into desktops and jaded disposition of my students.  They were justifiably suspicious of my optimism and took full advantage of my inexperience.  Of course.

I did not change them, but they changed me.

I came back my second year, facing my new assignment as a sixth grade teacher.  I was not there to save them. I was there to see how I could help.  How I could show them something new, maybe, while learning a little myself.

I shifted gears and restructured my curriculum to be taught entirely through a reading and writing workshop, so that students had ownership of what they read and wrote.  I did my best to honor their individuality and they rewarded me by sharing of themselves, eventually writing honestly about challenges at home, on the street, in the darker and brighter corners of their hearts.

I learned that a big part of teaching is listening.

I learned that some students need a witness to their lives.

What I value about education is that I have the opportunity to witness growth.  I have the privilege of seeing students fall in love with their first book.  I get to be there when they have that “aha” moment.

I value those moments when they truly trust me.  When they come to me to help them figure out something in their relationship with another person, with themselves, with the world. In those moments, I treasure the trust they put in me.

I value the fact that I will never be perfect; I will not be right all the time.  I value that just when I think, “I’ve got this,” it is time to change gears for the next influx of new personalities, new learning styles. Or, alternately, new mandates from the district, state, or federal powers-that-be.

I value those little moments when current students make me a birthday book. (“Since you love books, you deserve more than just a birthday card.”) When a student asks to have lunch with me then tells me about his parents abandoning him, when a student comes to my classroom early just to hang out and wants to clean my board or write the day’s agenda.

I value the relationship that withstands time, which goes beyond learning together in the classroom: those moments when a former student tags me on Facebook as the person who helped her find the first book she loved. When former students become the jazz band at my wedding. When a former student writes me a recommendation letter for an award.

I value the fact that no matter who is in the White House, when I close my classroom door, I can form a relationship with each student that can make a difference.

More than anything, I love that being an educator means I’m always learning.  Each year is a fresh start. A new opportunity to give students a voice, give them an ear, give them an opportunity, give them a chance to see in themselves the possibilities that I see for them. Each year, I am moved by the tapestry of personalities that offer me the opportunity to work with them and be a part of their growth.