As a child, seeing a teacher outside of school was strange, like seeing a fish walking on dry land. Eventually, everyone learns that teachers are people, too—they just don’t live in the classroom. In her latest collection, You Are No Longer in Trouble, former Literary Mama contributor and editor, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, draws on her experiences of growing up as the daughter of a junior high school principal, then becoming an educator and having daughters of her own. She uses prose poems and flash essays to paint a picture of a teacher’s life, giving the reader a more complete vision of a teacher as a whole person.
The topics are not presented in chronological order, instead, the narrator changes between most of the pieces from a teacher to a child to a parent to a student. Rather than feeling jarring, this approach to the collection flows well, adding to the sense of seeing a complete person from different angles. The continual theme of education keeps the pieces moving smoothly from one to the next. O’Donnell traveled to India as a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to observe schools there, and she credits that time with prompting her to create this collection.
O’Donnell includes topics of being a teacher and dealing with the education system in several of the poems and essays. In “On a Field Trip to View the Tourists at the Museum,” the narrator describes going on a field trip to the University of Alaska Museum, a place tourists also frequent, where a man tries to take a photo of one of the children in her group. Recalling the incident, she hopes she correctly followed the rules and told the man, “No pictures.” “Excerpt” talks about the yearly requirement to make a five-minute video of her teaching. This seems like it should be a simple task, but the teacher has to deal with permission slips, the logistics of keeping students without permission out of the camera’s view, arguments between students over whether pizza is a vegetable, and a student showing the scar of a surgically removed extra toe. Adding to the stress of making the video is knowing that once it is complete, it is sent to someone in a basement office who uses that five minutes to measure her effectiveness in the classroom for the entire year.
“Honestly” brings to light the personal side of being a teacher and how people react to learning a person is a high school teacher:
I didn’t know you were a teacher. Oh, god, I’m sorry. High school? Not college? That explains a lot. I could so never do that. Thank god for you. You’re a saint. What’s it like to get paid for sitting around all summer? That must be nice. You get paid for summer, right? For glorified babysitting, imagine that.
The poem goes on to share more reactions including complaints, backhanded comments, and soliciting thoughts on vouchers, shootings, and drugs. The reader gains a sense of how uninformed or misinformed people can be about the profession.
Some of this misinformation could be attributed to how teachers are portrayed in movies, which is the subject of two pieces. In “Dear John Hughes,” the speaker tells filmmaker John Hughes how he would have filmed the assembly on the first day of her freshman year and that he left out certain aspects of school in his movies, such as the racist playground chants the narrator observed in real life.
O’Donnell uses more movie imagery in “A Teacher Playing a Movie Star Playing a Teacher”:
Montage: pencils, a tongue poked out in concentration, crossed Chuck Taylor’s tapping underneath a desk, reluctant smiles, chipped-nail-polish fingers shuffling cards, dirty-nailed thumbs flipping through a thesaurus. Eyerolls. Balls of paper flung into the industrial can, every wrist a different shade of brown.
The piece concludes with:
I punch the steering wheel, ugly cry, which for me is still pretty. My car almost doesn’t start. Almost. Rattling, I signal and turn left out of the lot.
The reader will see flashes from countless movies with these exact images. Both of these pieces show how glossy and unrealistic being a high school teacher is in the movies compared to real life.
O’Donnell’s experience as an English teacher at a school for incarcerated youth in Fairbanks, Alaska, is the foundation for a few of the pieces. These highlight how things taken for granted at most schools are absent in this setting. “First Day of School at the Juvenile Detention Center” begins:
No one’s mother took a first-day-of-school picture because mothers aren’t allowed and every student wears the same Bob Barker clothes: Velcro sneakers and plain navy blue pants with elastic waists. All summer no one went home. Which means there was no summer.
No summer. No back-to-school clothes shopping. No first-day-of-school photos taken to post on social media. Then in “What Not to Say to Your Students in the Juvenile Detention Center,” she highlights how a simple phrase ubiquitous in most schools is not appropriate in this setting:
Never say it. No matter how many times you’ve said it to other classes as thirty kids pack bags and check phones. Don’t forget where you are now, post-job transfer and career change, post-background checks, post-confidentiality agreement, post-Prison Rape Elimination Act training. No one will have a good weekend, even if they earned all their points, even after Evangelical Christians, or therapy dogs, or the foster grandma who comes to play cards. The key lock box clicks and beeps approval as you leave on Friday afternoon. The swing shift is coming on. Not one of your students is going home. Never forget that.
Both of these pieces give the reader a small taste of the absence of simple courtesies, events, and freedoms readily found in most schools. They also show O’Donnell’s natural writing style present throughout the collection, which feels like the narrator is engaged in a conversation with the reader.
“Drills” is interesting in that it addresses multiple types of drills—nuclear bomb, fire, lockdown—from all points of view represented in the collection. One section includes notes recorded during a lockdown written by O’Donnell’s daughter. Knowing the notes are real and from a child adds to the sobering truths of the situations highlighted in the piece.
O’Donnell continues the personal feel with the pieces titled “Excuses for the Principal,” in which the narrator talks to her father about their relationship. She starts with telling him about something small like visiting his office as a child and the secretary sneaking her pieces of candy and later advice given about being an educator. She writes, “You told me never to become a principal. Principals get only the worst parts of teaching. Don’t do it, you said when I was student teaching. It’s not worth it.”
They also move through more painful subjects including hurtful comments and actions, secrets kept, and eventually his death. The writing in these pieces feels vulnerable and honest, drawing the reader further into the perceived conversation with the speaker.
The title piece shows O’Donnell’s love for writing, both in the topic and the style. “You Are No Longer in Trouble” features a student in detention who is instructed to write a story using all of the words from the spelling list:
Mr. Buff might know some things about catching cheaters, but he doesn’t know that to you, words can’t ever be punishment. You write Rhyme and Rhetoric were walking down the Boulevard. You make them do bad things. You make them so bad you might be afraid to meet them walking down the boulevard.
O’Donnell’s ability to draw the reader in with her honest and conversational writing style is evident. It is easy to see why she has won awards and recognition, including an Individual Artist Award and an Artist Fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation, a Boochever Fellowship from the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation, and the 2013 WILLA Literary Award for Poetry for her first collection, Steam Laundry.
You Are No Longer in Trouble does not sugar-coat or put a movie shine on the life of a teacher. It also does not try to be shocking or bleak about the profession. O’Donnell strikes a well-balanced tone, providing a realistic sense of the life of a teacher.
For more about Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, click here.