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poetry Becoming Educated

The grief of today’s wars, North Carolina poet Joanne Durham reminds us, falls heaviest on the children of the victims.

Becoming Educated

By Joanne Durham


“I managed to soothe these students as much as possible by means of poetry and prose.”

– teacher who set up a Gaza tent school to keep Palestinian children learning –Feb 29, 2024

A Gazan school I once saw in a photograph -

painted mural on the back wall, wide

window light, rows of wooden desks

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scratched by pens the way kids across the world

etch their names into the givingness of grain

to say, “I am here.”

Not one school in Gaza still says, “I’m here.”

Some are rubble, some shells of scarlet silence

blackboards and students erased.

I remember how in Sunday School, to amuse us,

Mr. Rock told Bible stories in the first person:

how he stood next to Moses awed by the burning bush,

witnessed Abraham tie Isaac to the altar,

answering God, “I am here.”

When the Rabbi visited our class, his distant eyes

echoed, “I am still here,” despite his arm

branded with blurred numbers, deeper

than we could carve our initials in wooden desks,

deeper than the sacred engravings Moses carried

down the mountain. The Rabbi told his stories

in the first person, words that did not amuse

but dug into my nightmares. But when he spoke

of Israel, my fears turned to milk and honey,

the Exodus of Jews to the Promised Land,

miraculous act of a merciful God.

Neither the Rabbi nor Mr. Rock spoke of the sacrifice –

the Palestinians who lived in that land, who cried,

“We too are here.” No one spoke

of their exodus, how they fled homes

stolen or burned, children with no entrance

into my dreams. We can pretend not to see

their empty desks, names splintered dust,

but under an unsturdy tent, they still tell their stories.

Joanne Durham is a retired teacher living on the North Carolina coast. She is the author of To Drink from a Wider Bowl, winner of the Sinclair Poetry Prize (Evening Street Press 2022), and the chapbook, On Shifting Shoals (Kelsay Books 2023). Recent awards include Third Wednesday Magazine’s 2023 Annual Poetry Contest, the Mary Ruffin Poole Prize from the NC Poetry Society.