Astronomy Lesson
Christopher Howell

I had dreamed all day of baseball
and a girl named Darlene
and therefore stood at the blackboard
like a blind conductor imagining the orchestra
as a field it would take years to cross.
The teacher loomed over me, gloating,
disgusted, had-it-up-to-here in her blue
cotton dress with its belt of little mother of pearl
moons I wanted to touch.  Near the school day’s end
she had suddenly, it seemed to me, shouted “Christopher! 
Which planet in our solar system is closest to Earth?”
Who could know, I thought, who could know
even what it meant to know
when you could call it anything you liked
and, looking out the window,
could imagine yourself there--and be back
before the end of class, or the end predicted
every week day by that man with the sign who wept
as he ran down Hawthorn Street,
begging us all to repent. 

And, of course, I wanted to repent
of my lazy and ignorant life, its obvious
worthlessness to anyone but my mother
who saw nothing wrong and who would be puzzled
again at my having to stay after school confused
and humiliated at the blackboard
writing “Dreaming makes one stupid” over and over, slowly,
the teacher with her arms crossed, tapping a foot.
If only I would pay attention!
would become of me? 
She was sure she didn’t know.

Above us the new moon went by
and all the daylight stars
telling their stories without a sound, though
the man with the sign was listening hard
to his own numb heart
and, at the blackboard, I fixed on the white curve
of the letter ‘S,’ in “stupid,” like a pathway I could follow
out of the den of that gorgon
who knew everything except the sun’s certain anger
at her wearing moons
around her waist like that, as though she herself
were a planet
where no one would ever repent
and children were despised.

Originally appeared in Gettysburg Review

Return to Spring 2016 Table of Contents