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What We Missed in School 

February 2018

All of us missed some things when we were in school. Maybe you are still in school. From kindergarten through graduate school, you were absent in body and mind sometimes, and other times you were there in body but not in mind.

When I searched on "what you missed in school", I got more than 40,000 hits, so we must have missed a lot of stuff. There are two poems I like that deal with this topic. One is "What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade" by Brad Aaron Modlin (from Everyone at This Party Has Two Names).

Modlin's poem begins:

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark...

and concludes with

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.

Modlin touches on a number of things that may not be listed in any curriculum, but are the kinds of things I found myself dealing with in my teaching days. Of course, teaching fourth grade or kindergarten is very different from teaching high school or college. And yet, school is a place where we learn many things not in the books or lesson plans.

When you are out of school, you might realize that there were things you were taught, but that you never learned. There were things you missed for some reason or another.

That poem is a good companion to another popular-with-teachers poem "Did I Miss Anything?" by Tom Wayman which I discovered when I was teaching middle school. (It is in his Selected Poems and also appears in the anthology edited by Billy Collins when he was our Poet Laureate for teachers to use, Poetry 180)

I used Wayman's poem several times for back-to-school nights with parents. There were some puzzled looks from the parents of kids who also frequently had puzzled looks in class. But most kids and parents get the point.

Wayman's poem is a series of answers to the title question that alternate between "nothing" and "everything." He starts by answering:

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

and he concludes with the big Everything:

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered
but it was one place
And you weren’t here

For our prompt this month, the topic was what you missed in school.  Was it something important? Was it all irrelevant? Do you even know what it is that you missed? Did you know it at the time, or have you realized it many years later?

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Schooled before Columbine,
I missed lessons
on lockdowns and shelter-in-place,
the death-defying algebra
of X objects piled,
Y, against a door
and the proper way to calculate
the energy of rage
in the deviation
of a falling body.

Diane Senior


When I was still working, I hated using sick days
Because what I enjoyed most about teaching
Was having a captive audience for my poems,
Especially the spontaneous ones,

Like the time I held up a piece of chalk,
And told my ninth graders that this was unlike
Any other piece they had ever seen,
Because this one was brought to America by my grandfather,
Who, at the turn of the last century, had been a physics professor in Krakow, Poland,
But who was fired from his university
For criticizing his Austrian rulers.
When he immigrated to America, all he brought were his clothes,
A few pictures of his family,
And this one piece of chalk to remind him of his love for physics.

Each day, as he descended into the coal mines,
The only job he could get in this country,
He carried this piece of chalk in his overalls.
When he died of black lung disease in his late fifties,
My grandmother gave me this piece of chalk as a remembrance of him.

And while the students stared on the pure whiteness in my hand,
Waiting for the assignment I would scribble on the blackboard,
I clumsily dropped it on the floor,
Where it shattered into a dozen pieces.
A few kids nervously laughed;
A kind-hearted girl in the front gasped
Before getting out of her seat to gather up the pieces.

No, I assured them,
That was just an ordinary piece of chalk,
The same one I used yesterday to put the definition of free verse on the board;
The real one I smashed years ago,
The day before my last absence.

Ron Yazinski


I missed a week of school when I was 10
because I had the measles.
It was the week before spring break
so I was away from school for 14 days.
My friend, Leslie, brought me homework,
but it seemed so small and insignificant.
I knew I was missing so much more.
Is this why I never was able to divide fractions?
What does not fully understanding photosynthesis
mean to living a full life?
What did my classmates say about me that week?
We never really know what we missed.
We suspect that all these gaps were missed,
but forgetting creates many more holes.
Maybe that would have been the week I fell
in the lunchroom and everyone laughed,
or failed a math test
or had someone tell me I was so ugly
no one would ever love me.
Instead, I read myself in and out of fevered sleep.
I told my dog all about the poem I wrote
that morning in my journal telling how my classmates
missed me, how they realized how important I was
in their lives and how different everything would be
when I returned to them on Monday
when all the flowers
along the way to school
were blooming.

Ken Ronkowitz


She was too busy
Busy wandering off
Off into the abyss of thoughts
Thoughts that took over her mind

She was just another student
Student who if not for her curiosity would have known
Known that her classmates were crying
Crying about the loss of their teacher

The girl with glassy eyes
Eyes that witnessed the death of friends
Friends that were once filled with joy
Joy that has faded away

Just pay attention to the little things

Jennifer Contreras


What I missed in school was learning that simply existing is always enough.
What I learned was how to eat lunch in my car in under ten minutes.
I missed learning how to cope with an empty house built on cracked foundation.
I learned sally up sally down can be used not only for squats but push ups too.
I missed learning that single parents almost always struggle and life won't ever stop even when it's too much to handle.
I learned that it's always good to go to the bathroom with a buddy to hold the lockless stall closed so I don't have to wait in a line of infinitely impatient teens.
I missed learning that lavender fields exist within reach and beauty can be found even in the coldest months.
I learned that my shoulders are provocative and distract others from proper education.
I missed learning how to value myself and how to believe that even in this insurmountable sea of people I matter.
I learned that most school foods are edible when you drown them in hot sauce and hold your nose.
My four wonderful years in these windowless walls are coming to an end.
What I missed I will learn outside of this small insignificant building.
But at least now I know how to put my name on a page right next to the date.

Lindsay Benko


I learned about the Forest Primeval
but it was a long time ago, in anapests.

I learned the dodo was extinct, even back
when I was in school. I don't remember

the teachers saying what became of
primeval forest: how we fence and clear-cut

and the woods grow back in spite of us,
until we bring in the earth-movers,

terracing and leveling the hills, paving
small lives over. I don't recall DDT

in the curriculum, failed nests, habitat loss,
our national eagle threatened.

And the red-legged frog, dwindling
twilight song from oak swale to ponds –

not part of the lesson plan in my schooldays.
As if the disappearing act that history

keeps performing in spite of published
textbooks – revising/updating itself

at cyber-speed changing everything
making us all obsolete – as if history didn't

care what was in the curriculum
for our young, not yet extinct as the dodo.

Taylor Graham


My head buried between the stacks
Scrambling to find
The definition of loquacious
And trying to figure out
The cosine of 105

The endless hours of studying
and practicing
and learning
and praying

Hoping to be able to remember that one formula
and memorize your vocabulary
for anatomy.

I hadn't realized that the homework I was studying for wasn't the lessons I needed to be learning.

I needed to learn love.
Real Love.
Not the fake, jealous, abusive trap
that we all can fall for if we aren't careful.

We needed to learn compassion
Placing judgement and hatred
Behind our undying passion
For humanity.

We needed to learn our roots
Spending time with the divine greens and blues
That brought us all into
The world.

I guess we all missed days of school
Because what we needed to learn
Was beyond textbooks and crumbling walls.

Simran Modhera


At first glance I thought I was having a nightmare.
I am surely prepared for the test, but why isn't anyone here?
I ripped the notebook from my Ninja Turtle back pack.
I frantically flipped pages to insure I wasn't losing my mind.
See, there it is in black and white. I was right! 10: 45. Tears began to saturate my stretched out, gray, Power Ranger shirt.
If I get anymore ''F's'' my mother will make my backside hurt.
My heart began to race and it starting to get difficult to breathe.
I can't walk straight because I'm shaking from my knees.
My teacher approached me suddenly, and the hopeless feeling eased away.
He told me that the time rolled back because of daylight savings time,
which I would have known if I showed up to school yesterday.

Brent Ribbing Sr.


Chalk sliding down the blackboard, a painful screech
That screams at you to cover your ears
To shield your tympanic membrane
from the date Brutus got Caesar killed
Et tu mi fili Brute?

The prof looks up to survey the landscape:
The usual gaping sheep and sleeping (g)apes
Shakes his head, then lifts the chalk to trace
-Insert white chalk on the black board screech-
Et tu mi fili Brute?

Meanwhile, white flowers fall from a tree
Somewhere near, you lock eyes with a bee
Then turn back to the history T
In time to see the chalk cease to be.
Et tu mi fili Brute?

Wiped eternally, you missed the date
How could you miss such a vital piece
Of world history. You never dared
Imagine you'll see four times still:
Et tu mi fili Brute?

Fast forward to present here I am,
And though I know the date and deed,
I failed to see the greatest deeds
Gave it a name and made it wear black
Et tu mi fili Brute,

Do you know what you really missed?
It would never fit a couplet.

Vanda Czene


when my teachers must have defined
So, for many year the If / then situations
baffled me .
When Liz told me
"If you really loved me,
then you would never say that,"
I did not understand.
Later that school year
Diane told me
"I would have gone out with you before Liz,
but it doesn't feel right now."
      If I had not missed those lessons,
then how many would have loved me?
But I did.

Charles Michaels


I woke up sick and missed a day
A whole act in Shakespeare's play
But never did I ponder when the story went along
That suddenly the characters don't seem to belong
I wondered in the last line of the play
What happened to Caesar that day
But when the bell rang I forgot about the story
Focused on the outside world's glory
But when the test results rolled in
The gap in the ending of A was filled in
I realized later that the story's middle defines the end
It's the path that can make the future bend

Shruti Sridharan


"You can't read that? It's up there plain as day;
No wonder you're not doing well in school,
If you can't see the blackboard! Time, my boy,
For you to have your eyes checked."
That's the arc
My learning curve described; and even now,
Myopic in more ways than one, and sure
I see clear truth in what is just a blur,
I am too apt to over-generalize.

A trip to the optometrist soon proved
That what I needed was to feast my eyes
Through the corrective lenses he prescribed.

"Voila!" he said, as he drew back the shades.
I stared across the parking lot, surprised
At seeing autumn leaves for the first time!

Lee Evans


I was very young
when I saw Our Town -
the age the protagonist
chooses to return to
after her death
only to discover
that she had
sort of

It must have hit me
on the right day
the right hour
in the right season -
just as I must have been
lapsing into maturity

and because of it
I can say with
some honesty
that at an age
when many are
swallowed whole
by regrets
I don't believe
I missed much

and what I may have missed
was, most surely,
of far less account
than seeing a frog
plop into a puddle
or a crocus poke its nose
through its gossamer cocoon

Wisdom to knowledge is,
it seems, disproportionate
and yes, I am and have been
ridiculously fortunate

Timea Deinhardt


Mom didn't like keeping us home from school
But aside from being terribly unattractive
The chicken pox, mumps and other maladies couldn't be argued with
It was winter and Warhol's soup was on the stove, Warner Brothers on the TV
The house awaft in a miasma of Vicks Vapor Rub
Camphor - the aromatherapy of my childhood malaise
Yeah, even as I convalesced life was pretty good... yet,
I wonder what I may have missed during those times

Miss Sparber, what did I miss that day?
When the kinder could still be little awhile longer
Was there arts and crafts and singing?
Imagine such folly!
Cubbies filled with dolls and blocks
And rubber gloves masquerading as hand puppets
And infinite sheets of multicolored construction paper
And coffee tins filled with crayons both whole and mutilated

Who else might have spilled their milk in Miss Maniscalco's class?
And like me, were they on the verge of tears with six-year-old embarrassment?
Did you assure them as you did me that milk was good for wood?
Your older age set you apart from the others
As much as your black jacket with fur trimmed collar,
Bright red lips and deeply penciled arched brows
But I recall your kindness

I have a strong feeling I missed a lot of math
Okay, absent or not - I missed a lot of math
Second grade math with Miss Massimime
I was much more interested in your name -
The alliteration, the songy-ness of it
The words I might cull from that three syllabled lyric
-Than any of those addition and subtraction problems
Glaring at and terrorizing me from the chalkboards
An endless pattern of the mysterious and unsolvable

Were the long paned windows open that day Miss Noonan?
Because regardless of the temperature outside ...
The fresh air, so we were told, was good for us
Or at least good enough to keep us awake
The better to see your lovely colorful wool skirt sets
Red and emerald against classic white stockings and black patent flats

Perhaps I missed the day when Miss Iwaskow cut loose
And went wild dancing about our desks
Her long straight light brown hair unclipped
Were you a Carolynn or a Caroline? I cannot recall
But you were not a Carol- no
That would not have suited you - sweet and reserved

Which book and which chapters were read aloud?
That I did not hear
Was it you Miss Sills who sometimes visited
To read aloud Charlotte's Web
Your petite self perched in a big tall oak chair
While we boys and girls gathered around at your feet
When teachers were front and center
And students still looked up and not down

Miss Murphy, did I miss that special announcement?
That you were no longer Miss Murphy but now Mrs. Maher
She who wore headbands, and jeans and penny loafers
And generously took small groups of us on weekend day trips
Yours was a match made at school - a true love story
And all without the help of the Internet or a reality show
Tell me, did you drive off together in your little yellow sports car?
Are you still in love? I like to think so

Ah Miss Marrone, our "lunch lady"
Did I miss the pizza or the sloppy joes those days?
And did you miss me, one of the many who asked
"Miss Marrone, what's for lunch today?"
Most days you smiled and answered; some days you pointed
To the weekly menu - Posted for all to see and most to ignore
Tell me, did you one day miss that question? Did you miss those voices?

There are certain days I know I didn't miss
Class picture days
I have them all
The photos a bit faded perhaps
But the days, the days are still vivid
All of you - Frozen in those moments
And so many others
But alive in so many memories
For all those and all the days I didn't miss - I thank you

Terri J. Guttilla


Their job was to make sure you did not miss it.
As they said, see one, do one, teach one
Someone will depend on you,
And have expectations of your skill
You could not say, I am not interested
In what was happening here, I have better
Things to do, than pay attention
At that stage, everything was important
And thinking that I could pick and chose
What I was supposed to learn
Was not part of the vocabulary.
Often the teacher does not have time
To go over things, step by step, see if you
Have a cane when you are injured
And tell you which leg will goes first
Over the curb, when shifting your weight.
A comedian has solved the joke
Something, sometimes, something in the middle
Something unexpected as when hungry
You say to yourself when looking at a hen
I'll let it live, sometimes I need an egg.

Edward Halperin


When I was five years old, I missed the first day of school in Kindergarten
The only day of my entire life I should have never missed
Because in the four walls of the faded classroom
The students were taught how to win
They learned to look forward
to color in the lines
to walk in single file
to fill in the right bubbles
An industrial chain, person after person
Pumping out one success story after another
Discarding the defective models
I came in the next day, ready to read and write
But I was disciplined and discarded
Because I didn't look forward
I didn't color in the lines
I didn't walk single file
I filled in the wrong bubbles
I was a defective model
And defective models are thrown away
While those who win are put on pedestals
Because we're not taught to learn
We're taught to win

Diego Murillo


That one Monday morning you didn't show up to school
I waited for you.
I missed half of first period when I realized
You weren't coming.
In the twenty six minutes I wasn't in math
Numbers actually made sense to everyone.
Except me and you.

That one Monday morning you didn't show up to school
I tried to text you.
I wanted to know where you were
But right before I could get to your contact
Bobby Fullerton texted me back.
You weren't there to freak out with me so
I left my dream boy on read.
We both knew I wouldn't get through
That conversation without you.

That one Monday morning you didn't show up to school
I needed to borrow a pen.
I had to write a five page English essay
About my ambitions for the future.
Since I couldn't write, I thought about it a lot
But I still came up with nothing.
I figured I'd ask you about your thoughts tomorrow.

That one Monday afternoon you didn't show up to school
I needed to borrow a pencil.
The school set up an assembly on how to get your
Life together before you head to college.
In the forty four minutes the assembly lasted
Life seemed to be figured out for everyone.
Except me and you.

That one Monday afternoon you didn't show up to school
I needed a ride home.
My mom was out of town for the week
And my dad was working late that night.
I had no other option, so I walked.
It was raining.
I hoped I didn't get sick.

That one Monday afternoon you didn't show up to school
Your mom was crying.
The ring of my landline reverberated
Through the empty air of my home.
It was warning me of the news I was about to receive.
You were gone.

That one Monday morning you didn't show up to school
You weren't planning on coming back.
While I was whining the day away
You were counting how many pills
You thought would be enough to get the job done.
You decided on eight
Because that was your favorite number.

That one Monday morning you didn't show up to school
I was alone.
You were hurting.
And I had no clue, no inkling
Of what you were going through.

MaKayla Sosa