Hard Lessons: Poem for a Mentor on His Retirement (Written & Read by Margaret Anna Alice)

3 months ago

A dear mentor reached out to see if I would be willing to share a few anecdotes for her to cite during her speech at the retirement dinner of another cherished mentor. This poem is what poured out. I believe it encapsulates what true education is about, and I feel fortunate that both these mentors and several others nurtured my intellectual curiosity; cultivated my critical thinking skills, analytical abilities, empathy, and moral courage; and challenged me to become the reader, writer, and person I am today.

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Below is the text of the poem:

Hard Lessons
Poem for a Mentor on His Retirement
by Margaret Anna Alice

“What … strikes you about this poem?”
Your signature Socratic opening
was a running joke
among English majors.

You never imposed;
you elicited.
You never told;
you listened.

Teasing truths from depths
we did not know
were within us,
you allowed the silence
to sound the salient,
epiphanies blossoming
from the quiet
like dormant bulbs
stretching toward April’s
cruel light.

You never closed;
you opened.
You never coddled;
you challenged.

Leavening poignancy with humor,
honesty with empathy,
truth with beauty,
you watched us
wander our way
through the brambles,
earning our discoveries
like wide-eyed explorers
penciling in the contours
of untraversed territory.

You never dulled;
you sharpened.
You never lowered;
you elevated.

Eavan Boland, U.A. Fanthorpe,
Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill,
William Faulkner, Flann O’Brien—
you conducted colloquies with
the poets, playwrights, and novelists
who illuminate my path today,
whose words swathe me during times of loss
like a palimpsest blanketing a lacuna.

Inspiring us to reach for our highest selves,
you strengthened the muscles of our minds,
the grit of our characters,
the resilience of our spirits.

You taught us there is
meaning beyond language,
myth beyond literature,
morality beyond law.

Valuing integrity over comfort,
conscience over compromise,
reality over ruse,
you held us to a steeling standard
some called harsh, I invigorating.

When I exposed corruption,
malfeasance, and injustice
in probing newspaper articles—
from the butchery of campus oaks
to the dismissals of wrongthinkers—
you championed my truth-seeking,
cheered my truth-speaking.

If you were impressed, it meant something.
If you were disappointed, it meant something.

No one knew that better
than your daughter, who
feared your furrowed brow
and prized your proud smile
even more than me, who myself
considered you the father
I’d always wished for,
the mentor who was to leave
the deepest mark on my being.

Remember that day in the library
when you found the two of us
in the catacomb of discards,
nineteenth-century periodicals
destined for destruction?

We’d been ordered to rip
the bindings from their pages,
the spines from their signatures.

She assumed the task with gusto,
fulfilling her assignment
like the A+ student she was.

I opened the first volume,
tentatively tearing the wings
from the thorax like a lepidopterist,
feeling the rupture in my breast
as the musty pages crumbled
beneath my fingertips.

When I cracked the next volume,
my eyes alighted on the table of contents—
now lost to memory, these were
names I knew, names I felt.

“I can’t do this,” I told her,
returning the book to its shelf.
“This feels like sacrilege.”

Never one to give up, she persisted.

Then you arrived in the doorway,
asking what was happening.
I said the acquisitions librarian
had told us to destroy these books,
but I could not do it.
I would not do it.

You pulled her aside—
your disappointed expression
being the only course she would ever need
in why “just obeying orders”
is the inexcusable excuse of those
complicit in tyranny, in genocide.

You then rebuked the librarian,
rescuing the tomes
from demolition
and ushering them
to shelves befitting
of their historic relevance.

Painful as it was,
this hard lesson
carved itself into
your daughter’s heart,
teaching her
righteous resistance,
peaceful noncompliance,
daring disobedience.

I practice this homework daily,
reciting the one word that distinguishes
the courageous from the culpable,
the critically thinking from the conforming,
the free from the fettered:

It was a lodestar
she would cradle within
for the remaining two decades
of her luminous life—
until the thunderclap stroke
struck her down,
teaching you
the hardest lesson of all,
the one every parent
lives in terror of.

Now she is within you,
her beloved,
her son,
her brother,
her mother,
the innumerable
lives she graced
with her noble presence,
following in your
formidable footsteps
in the very classroom
you are now departing.

And you are within me
and the thousands
of other students
you shepherded
through Translations,
“Getting It Across,”
At Swim-Two-Birds,
Go Down, Moses,
Long Day’s Journey into Night,
“What We Lost”—
every text a page
in the Grand Book of Life,
taking flight like
ah! bright wings
as our days count
down toward the
silences in which are
our beginnings …
and endings.

For good books
must always end,
but their lessons
dwell in our deathless souls
for time immemorial.

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