‘Back To School’ A Lyrical Ode To Colorado Teachers And Students

Listen Now

Students and teachers are back in school -- or on their way -- and that includes Colorado Matters resident poet David Rothman. He directs the graduate program in creative writing at Western State Colorado University and is a former public and private high school teacher. His newest poem is an ode to school life.

Back to School

By David Rothman

After the glistening crowds give up the beach,

And slats close up the old camp in the woods;

After the cars have wound down from the mountain

And the rangers say “Thank God that’s over…”

After the outdoor public pool’s been drained

And the Good Humor truck retreats to weekends,

And the evenings slowly start to quicken,

Comes the most hopeful morning of the year.


The sun is up, the busses chug, the pencils

Lie sharpened in a row, the windows shine.

Erasers fix to die in bad equations,

Tape and staplers wait for their assignments,

Band instruments see light of day.

The syllabi go round, and school begins.


Why do we do this? Why go to such trouble?

And why is it so hard? Collies, finches,

And sagebrush do not crawl from bed, rush breakfast,

Grab an Ipad, backpack and a sandwich

And depart to learn what learning is.

They just live. Birds sing without stern lessons.

They are indifferent to the history

Of birds. Dogs are indifferent to the facts,

Or at least the fact that facts are facts.

Grass grows without the knowledge of the rhythm

Of the Fibonacci algorithm,

Crickets sing without a theory’s score.


So why must we all work so hard to learn

How to be the people we would be,

When every other living thing appears

To be able just to be itself?

And it gets stranger. The original word

For “school” was Greek, where it at first meant “rest.”

The notion from the first was “leisure.” Why?

Maybe because it’s hard to learn when you

Are hungry, wet, exhausted, cold and poor.

So is it any wonder that a school

Might only make sense when such pain recedes?

When just enough prosperity begins,

A little peace, a little room to breathe,

That someone stops and looks around and says

“Well, why are things this way? And how is it

They came to be the way they are?” And then

Maybe somebody asks “Well, why do things

Exist at all?” And then somebody turns

To that one and says “What I’d like to know

Is why you’re asking such a stupid question.”

Aha! The first “F”! Unless someone else –

Perhaps the strangest one of all – then says

“Well, why is that a stupid question?” Silence

Around the fire. Somewhere a lone wolf howls.




And here we are. First day of school. Let’s start.

Good morning. Hats off, everyone. I want

To see your eyes. A drink is fine. No food.

Please silence your cell phones. We’re here to learn

About the rhetoric of science writing.

My name is not “Hey, Prof,” it’s Dr. Rothman.


O, what is useful? What impractical?

How did you make that thing? What does it do?

What is it for? How does it work?

The roof is leaking and the rain comes through.

How can we make it better? What should we do?


O, what is true, what not? How do we know?

Can that hypothesis be proven false?

Then, more than true, what’s truth? How do we know?

How far to Andromeda? Why are

Perfect circles absent from real space?

What is the answer? How do we know?

What is an answer? How do we know?


O, who are you? Who are you when you ask

And answer questions? How do you know?

What is your story? Where is the delight,

The voice of poetry and even joy

That also drives our conversation here?

Who are you in that world you see and hear?


Perhaps that is enough today. Do you

Have any questions? I hope so, because

That is your job now, learning how

To ask them, how to ask the really good ones,

Hard ones, in an order that makes sense.




They’re gone. O, I am so annoying! Yes,

As teachers have to be. This is for you:

All the teachers. You know who you are:

The over-worked and under-paid, admired

Yet always scored, outcome-evaluated

Without resources, yet excoriated

From every side if things don’t turn out right.


O Colorado, we are 43rd

In per-pupil spending now,

We’re 38th in spending on our schools –  

So this is for the teachers, the new ones

Especially: It will be harder than you think.

Please don’t give up. Don’t give up at East,

In Ouray, at Emmanuel, at Columbine,

From Mack and Paradox to Walsh and Julesberg,

At Holy Family, at Fountain Valley,

At CU, DU, CC, Mesa, Western,

And a thousand more. Don’t give up.

Why not? Well, that’s an interesting question.

Meanwhile, here they come. Let us begin.