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When I get this book published I’m throwing a party like no other, and if you find me a literary agent, you can have the first stab at the cheesiest of cheese platters. (I’ve contacted about 40 agents so far and am still looking.) Here’s the beginning of my memoir, folks, the story of my first year of teaching. Thank you for reading!

Excerpted from “Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom: Spirited Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter After Class, and Other Rookie-Teacher Dreams.”

Sept. 1

I stare at the outfit on the bed: brown khakis and a white dress shirt. Here is a headless, hand-less, foot-less teacher from Target. I am twenty-two, and I’m here because I stuttered as a child and fell in love with books as a way to avoid interacting with my peers. In fourth grade I got detention for reading No Coins, Please during math. The teacher put my name on the board and forced me to skip recess and stay inside under his supervision and read without interruption. As a teen I fell in love with writing because journaling on paper and inventing stories on a computer and manipulating line breaks in poems gave me spaces I could navigate better than the hallways and locker rooms at school. By ninth grade I had so much poetry on our family’s shared computer my mom organized the documents into folders and deleted some of the files along the way. When I searched for “KEEP OUT,” “KEEP OUT 2,” and “KEEP OUT FINAL” and couldn’t find them, I ran to my bedroom, laid on my bed, and clutched the second book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series.

“I didn’t delete anything,” my mom said through my closed bedroom door. “I only hit ‘enter.’”

If my mom had read the KEEP OUT files, she knew about the girl who walked on picket fences at night and the boy who cauterized his tongue with a kitchen knife. She knew about “Dark Eyed Angel,” the three-part poem I planned to read for my Valedictorian speech at my high school graduation commencement ceremony.

How could she understand?

She would never understand the symbolism of the weather in my poetry. She would never understand the connection between the states of my characters’ souls and my middle-class upbringing. She would never understand my love for African-American women’s literature.

In college I declared an English major. Shortly after sharing the news with my family, my mother convinced me sonnets weren’t a solid post-graduation career plan and suggested I look into the profession of teaching. I recalled my favorite teachers – the linguistics professor who tapped the linoleum with his bike cleats when he made a point, the junior English teacher who drummed her nails on the computer monitor as she entered grades, the third grade teacher who wore strawberry ice cream cone earrings – and thought, “I could do that.” I recalled discussing glottal and fricative consonants on a couch in Dr. VanderStaay’s living room after our class decided to end the quarter with lasagna with his family. I remembered feeling a small pulse of pride when Ms. DiBartolo pulled me aside and said I wrote metaphors that made sense on both sides of the comparison, as if I were one of the orange stripes in the mostly grey public school carpet beneath me feet. I remembered asking Mrs. Steele if I could lick her ears.

I wanted to be those people.

Starting tomorrow, I am a high school English teacher. Soon I’ll teach paragraphs and assign essays. I’ll write questions in the margins of students’ work and facilitate spirited conversations about big ideas. Maybe my ninth grade students will remember my assignments the way I remember dissecting owl scat pellets in fifth grade and identifying leaves in seventh grade, with fondness. Maybe they’ll say my assignments are stupid.

I know I’m supposed to say “I didn’t get into teaching to have an audience, to perform or to entertain,” but this journal is the KEEP OUT file of my first year so… my students are going to love me. Mr. Smith is magic, they will say. He gets us to do what we don’t want to do.

I try on the brown pants and white shirt with my brown Rockport shoes. I go to the bathroom and stand on the toilet seat so I can see myself in the mirror. My eyebrows are dark like my father’s, my forehead high like my mother’s. Look at those brown shoes. Look at those eyes. You checkin’ me out? I am your teacher. You are not checking me out.

I’m about to teach 9th grade English to one hundred and twenty freshmen and advise the monthly newspaper at the same school where I student taught. Part of me feels like I’m already sitting at my classroom desk, hands folded on the keyboard, head cocked to the chatter of students gathering outside the door. I see myself reaching up to adjust my collar, occasionally pulling a pencil from my mug of sharp Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2s and blowing on the tip. I place the pencil back in the mug.

The room is ready. Last week I scrubbed the windows and dusted the trim. I threw out stacks of faded construction paper and handouts on Aristotle’s The Poetics (“The tragic character aims for a bull’s eye…”) leftover from the teacher before. I arranged the desks in two concentric semi-circles, stomping around to test the portable classroom’s floor. I hung three WHY? WHY? WHY? signs above the whiteboard, an upside-down world map by the door, and Christmas lights along the windows. I put a lamp on a cabinet and mounted two fake video cameras in the back corners. I opened a door along a cracked wall and peered into Earl Beyer’s neighboring classroom and saw oversized maps of the Pacific Northwest and an agenda for the first day of school and knew my room needed something related to English.

“You can use these strategies anywhere,” I said to the concentric circles of empty desks three hours later, sweeping my hands across a homemade, floor-to-ceiling reading strategies poster, “no matter what text you’re studying. Fahrenheit 451 or a football game, Romeo and Juliet or reality TV. They’re all worthy of our analysis, and these skills will help.

“Why do we need to ‘track important information’ and ‘make inferences’?” I continued. “Can anyone say?” I provided appropriate wait-time.

“Okay. To spark epiphanies. And why do we need epiphanies? To make our lives rich with meaning, if we’re lucky. So who wants to go forth, read literature, and make meaning?”

My imaginary students raised their hands.

What will happen tomorrow? I doubt the Literacy Revolution will happen in a day – I’m not naïve – but I can’t help having secret fantasies. The army of volunteers ready and willing to read and engage with literature is a new dream. One recurrent fantasy from this summer is that the first day of school will be full of joyful, celebratory noise. Pompoms and foam fingers in hand, students will cheer for the announcement of each of my unit titles – “Greek Mythology and the Odyssey”? Greek Mythology and the Odyssey! “Romeo & Juliet”? Romeo and Juliet! – while bikini-clad women adorned with “Language Arts” placards move about my classroom in slow, sensuous circles, and when the bell rings I light a confetti canon.

Students may not cheer for my unit titles. Students might throw paper airplanes or try to bring portable stereos to class, or not sit down when I ask. Students will judge me. This is the teacher who wants to be my friend. This is the teacher who plays games. This is the teacher who is crazy about his marker sets. This is the teacher who needs help with AV cords. This is the teacher who won’t let me sleep. This is the teacher who wants to inspire me. That’s what students do on the first day, judge.

I have seven hours.

I should sleep, and I’m standing on the toilet.

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On Wednesday I’ll share the first chapter of my memoir “Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom: Spirited Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter After Class, and Other Rookie-Teacher Dreams.” I would LOVE for you to read it! Then find me a literary agent. Details below.

Mr. Smith is not your average teacher. He smokes cigarettes confiscated from students, serves fresh tea to a perpetually tardy boy, and when a young woman catches him wearing pajamas and reading Rolling Stone in Target, that becomes the topic for class discussion the next day.

Welcome to Derek Smith’s journal of his first year teaching English at a public high school. With relentless momentum and self-effacing honesty, Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom tells a hilarious and touching tale that romps though the education of one young man and 120 first-years in a run-down portable on the edge of campus. Smith, whose life is as fragmented and frantic as his students, skips and trips through a year in which he confronts sly-eyed rats, leaky ceiling tiles, misbehaving students, and one outlandish principal.

Chronicling both the sweep of American education and small successes of life and learning, Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom puts breath and bones on one of our nearly universal experiences: high school. LouAnne Johnson, bestselling author of Dangerous Minds, writes that Smith “has the soul of a poet, the wit of a stand-up comic, and the makings of an unforgettable teacher.” Bret Lott, bestselling author of Jewel, calls it “a sharp and funny and brutally honest book that has at its core a kind of shape-shifting elegance—it is at once a terror-ride through that first year of teaching and a nuanced homage… the result is a beautiful and funny story.”

The manuscript (49,000 words) is complete. A more formal proposal—including information about format and deliverables, primary and secondary markets, chapter summaries, competitive works, and endorsements—is available.

intercession willis
When I wake in the night and think
of what I might have said in class that day,
I wonder why my life consists

of inarticulate occasions.
No timely word, only belated ones.
Every hour a first draft, and then another.

It makes me want to announce, “Listen!
Listen to what I do not say. Listen
to what it is you cannot say yourselves.”

There are sighs and groans,
just sighs and groans.
Interpret them, dear ones, as you may.


Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and the former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collections of poetry are Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm, 2009) and Say This Prayer into the Past (Cascade Books, 2013). He is also the co-editor of the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (University of Iowa Press, 2005).

bitch pleeze
On the phone with an admin at a Utah high school, recommending my student teacher for a job / complimenting his work with our diverse population, and the admin asks, “At a low-income school? How is he with rigor? Our school is high-achieving…”


I understand. Our sophomores and juniors take the PSAT and SAT for free. Our talent show sells out. Our culinary students provide hors d’oeuvres for the Seattle International Film Festival, our student journalists produce professional publications, and our choir writes original compositions for graduation. Next week our annual multicultural mash-up takes over. Wanna come? Our students hold doors for visitors, so they’ll definitely hold one for you. You and I can go to ping-pong or anime club after school, and track practice some time after that. We’ll sit on the bleachers and watch our 4 x 400 m sprinters run circles around your racist logic…


Or, How to Have a Summer Vacation in December

Bring out the Magical Teacher mojo:
2/3 cup light rum
1/4 cup crushed and torn mint leaves (from your balcony herb pots)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed key lime juice
4-6 tablespoons sugar (to taste) or Splenda
Club soda
4 slices lime and 4 sprigs mint for garnish

Place half a dozen ice cubes in a beverage shaker and add the rum, mint leaves, key lime juice, and sugar. Shake well, long enough for the sugar to dissolve. Strain mixture over additional ice into high ball or martini glasses.  Garnish the drinks with lime and mint sprigs.


Sheryl Cornett currently teaches English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has also taught high school French in Kenya, East Africa, homeschooled her own kids, and conducted creative writing workshops in the public schools. Her recent poems, stories, and essays appear in the North Carolina Literary Review, Image, Pembroke Magazine, Mars Hill Review, and The Independent Weekly among other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.

Paul Willis Green Studies 2
I like the way that shrubs and flowers
lean against my classroom windows
as if wanting to enroll.  What would the azalea
say when asked about the Forest of Arden?
And would the red, red rose respond
to my mistress’ eyes as something,
after all, like the sun?  What’s not to like
in these my vernal, budding pupils—
so firmly rooted in this soil, so curiously
intertwined?  My vegetable love should grow
with each new bell of earnest fragrance,
fair and passing fair, each one.
As Eve once more eats of that fruit,
I hear their universal groan.


Previously published in Christian Century.

Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and the former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collections of poetry are Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm, 2009) and Say This Prayer into the Past (Cascade Books, 2013). He is also the co-editor of the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (University of Iowa Press, 2005).

David Yearbook Photo
Elementary (I)

I turn the pages of my yearbook until I find the varsity baseball team. The wave in Steve DeVoss’s hair kills me. While my third-grade teacher has me building a California mission sugar cube by sticky sugar cube, DeVoss is an honest-to-god baseball player, spinning curveballs past every middle school hitter in the valley.

His wave—shining with hydrogen peroxide—rises from the razor-straight part lining the left side of his head, crests in a gelled swell, and finally breaks across the right side of his forehead before washing past his ear. He seems a god. Like what a god would look like after being sent to earth to live as a twelve-year-old with the wisp of a mustache. Straight teeth, straight ahead, straight at everything that matters.


I met Jeff in Introduction to Water when I was five. He puckered like a fish and taught me to exhale a stream of bubbles. When I was six, he held me up in the dead man’s float position in the big pool where I couldn’t touch bottom. When I had to jump off the diving board to earn my Red Cross Beginning Swimmer card, I plunged toward him like an octopus, fastening myself around his neck.

Jeff was there every summer: when I was five and six and seven and an Advanced Beginner, eight and passing Intermediate, nine when my father left, ten when I was in Swimmer class all summer, eleven when my father married again.

The summer my father bought a house with his new wife, Jeff romanced Candy, who sat in the elementary school bleachers watching as the pool lifeguards took on the beach guards in a summer slow pitch game. I was there too, barefoot and scabby-kneed like the other kids. We cheered for the pool guards, really for Jeff, a god in mirrored sunglasses with a gleaming smile that matched the zinc oxide on his nose.



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