for Raymond Keltner, 1936-1979
In the Thunderdome of twelve-year-old boys,
learning the Code of the Playground,
No Tattling, Two for Flinching,
I had my first male teacher.
He was a big guy and played the curmudgeon.
When he took attendance that first day,
butterflies turned to hurricanes in my stomach
as he mispronounced my name.
He didn’t mock my vocabulary like the bullies.
He welcomed my scale model of the solar system
with blunt praise so I didn’t get beaten up
during recess or on the long walk home.
One sunny late winter, he borrowed a cornet
from one of the band kids and serenaded
his students for the last half hour of school
his love of music vibrating in every note.
Three years later, during freshman algebra,
they announced that he’d died of a heart attack.
I remember girls from my class crying.
I wanted to but did not— having failed
his most important lesson.
(The two men in the top row of my class picture are the school principal on the left and Mr. Keltner on the right. Any guesses which kid I was?)