Just kidding.

A girl “dislocated” her jaw on a cheeseburger, but everything else on the field trip was fine. The kids toured campus and listened to a college lecture. No one cried.

I got here because after a few months of exploring Central America and contemplating my future in education, I scored a two-month job teaching Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to 11- and 12-year-olds in Renton, Wash. We didn’t start the comedy about a woman finding happiness by marrying a man who deprives her of food and sleep immediately, so we had time for other things like building college dreams and getting to know each other.

“Are you chewing gum?” a girl with a purple butterfly clip in her hair asked me on the first day.

“Why?” I asked.

“We can chew gum?”

“Ummm…” I swallowed.

“Can I go to my locker and get a book?” a boy in a DEPT OF PURE GENIUS shirt asked on the second day.

“Run quick,” I said.

“We’re allowed to run?”

All accidental revolutions considered, I started paying attention to the basic rules of the middle school handbook and to the quirky characteristics of my sixth graders who, like sixth graders elsewhere, love folding notebook paper into footballs, fortune-tellers, ninja stars, and inflatable sweet rice dumplings.


2015-04-15 13.39.23
Last night I wasn’t sure if I’d have work today, so I was happy to see your absence in the online substitute register. I couldn’t find the lesson plan anywhere, so your students played volleyball and basketball.

In first period, a girl with dishwater hair didn’t want to serve, but when she reached back and went for a basic underhand the ball cleared the net, reminding me that serving a volleyball is no small thing, especially with onlookers, and that some days we take the form that gets results.

Your students in second period told me you’ve been recovering from back surgery, and that they knocked out their first sub. “What?” I asked. “Knocked out?” The kid got suspended, they explained, for hitting the woman in the head with a volleyball, and the other two kids who aimed but missed stuck around and got into new kinds of mischief, like rolling free weights down the stairs. And that’s why second period now walks laps instead of playing games.


peninsula 02 03
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 the Bell, 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 time. The teacher put my name on the board and forced me to skip recess and stay inside and read without interruption. As a teen I fell in love with writing because journaling on paper and inventing stories on the computer and manipulating line breaks in poems gave me a few spaces I could control. 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 she told me “KEEP OUT,” “KEEP OUT 2,” and “KEEP OUT FINAL” were gone, I ran to my bedroom, laid on my bed, and clutched the second book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series.

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


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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).


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