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.


Almost every day, I bookmark a website, email myself an article, or highlight a passage in a book with my students in mind. I outline lecture notes and jot conversation starters in the page margins of whatever I’m reading. I craft engaging questions and anticipate my students’ reactions.

The only thing is, I have no students.

I haven’t set foot in a classroom—and no one has called me Ms. Jones—in six months.

I’m not, according to my tax returns, a teacher. According to those tax returns, I’m not even employed.

Even so, I know which day on the syllabus I want to squeeze in a new text, and I know exactly how I want to incorporate a song I heard on the radio into our class discussion about postmodernism.

Why am I constantly aware of my imaginary students? Students with faces, even, and names? Becca, whose ponytail is hidden beneath a camouflage cap, who wears furry boots with Nike gym shorts. Andrew, whose dark eyebrows make him appear perpetually skeptical. Natalia, the volleyball player who towers more than a foot above me when she approaches my podium.

Who are these people?


She is matching professors with classes for next year.
That is what department heads do on a winter evening,
Vivaldi playing his neat solutions in the air.

It is musical chairs with plums and lemons,
all the names trying to sit on the same plum
and staining their shorts in a most undignified way.

They rise warily, sponge themselves off, point and bicker,
shift liked magnets caught in mutual attitudes of antipathy.
There are unruly forces at work.  Tremendous sparks

fly from the paper before her.  Professor A is deeply
insulted by the suggestion that one of his experience
should be asked to teach composition to the freshmen.

Professor B has carefully noted who in the past
has been granted the choice honors sections;
clearly, it is his turn.  Professor C is fine about teaching

at eight o’clock—but she is just fooling!
Professor D would like to teach an overload, just
this once, until he pays for the remodel on his home.


math problems
1. There are 40 teachers on your faculty. If four are retiring (but only two of those are full-time), one is becoming an administrator, two are leaving for graduate school, two are going on parental leave (but they both swear they’re coming back!), one is returning from parental leave (but can only find child care until 1:00 pm), one is following a spouse on sabbatical to Rome (but only until Christmas), one would really like to move up to full time in math, one would really like to cut back from full time in Spanish, one is getting fired in June but doesn’t know it yet, and another threatens to quit if he has to direct one more choir concert, how many hours will you spend in search committee meetings this spring?

2. Fourth period begins in three minutes, and you realize you have yet to make copies of the day’s test. On copy number two out of twenty-six, the photocopier jams. You consult the screen, which instructs you to open the vertical conveyance unit, release lever 9A, lower tray 13, turn knobs G and H, and replace the staple cartridge.

2a. Draw a diagram of the inner workings of the photocopier, accompanied by text explaining how you will fix the jam. Number each step, and remember to title and clearly label your drawing.

2b. Challenge question: Will you get to class on time? Please provide evidence for your argument.


pen caps
For a course on modern theater I was asked to submit a performance review. The play was Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” I waited until the last minute to write the review and didn’t bother with the substance of the performance. Instead I focused on the quality of the props. In one section, I compared the rifle that one of the main characters brandished to a prop from Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. (Even now I’m not going to look up the character’s name on Wikipedia to make it seem as if I truly remember the play.) That line earned me some good laughs when I read it aloud that night in class. I looked down, perfectly abashed, while my classmates laughed.

I thought I was hot shit in college. Substitute any other time period for ‘college’ and you’ll have a good idea of my life story. I took the laughter and the good grade and my feeling of extreme cleverness like they were birthrights.

My prof asked me to stay after class. When the last student was gone, he asked me to sit across from him at the seminar table. He told me he’d given me a high mark because my writing was excellent. (Duh. I was trying to pay attention, but he wasn’t saying anything I didn’t know. Of course the writing was excellent.) Then he told me he wished he could have given me a poor mark. (Huh?) He said I was squandering my talent. He said he expected better of me. He said I could shoot for easy laughs and get them every time. Then he was silent and stared at me and I capped and uncapped my pen and pitted out and mumbled something and tried to pull a door that needed to be pushed and walked back to my dorm room alone.

I wish that had happened to me more. I wish I hadn’t been twenty when it happened first.

David Jacobsen lives in central Oregon where he teaches, edits, and writes. He is the author of Rookie Dad and his website is

A collection of Facebook status updates narrating my daily life in Seoul, working as a high school EFL teacher

Part 1 [2010]

October 15
Explaining complicated words and phrases with other complicated words and phrases.

November 26
Today, one of my students asked if I had a cold. I said yes. She said she liked the way my voice sounded. I said thanks.

December 1
Spent a fair amount of time this morning explaining the difference between ‘That’s bomb,’ and ‘That bombed,’ to my co-teacher. Such intellectual, American expressions to clarify.

December 2
My favorite ‘descriptions’ given by a group of students during today’s speaking game: 1. Hotel=’Motel’s friend!’ 2. Train=’Subway’s friend!’ Garbage=’Trash’s friend!’ Beautiful=’Pretty’s friend!’

December 5
Mentally preparing for my professional development day tomorrow: early morning, 2 hours of desk warming, 2 hour bus ride (my school rented 2 buses to hold all 100+ teachers), lunch, jump rope contest, hula hoop contest, dodgeball tournament, dinner, 2 hour bus ride home.

December 31
One of my students just came to (optional winter camp) class with a neck brace on. Apparently, she fell on the ice yesterday.


whoopi in sister act
What Sister Mary Clarence Taught Me About Being a Magical Teacher (or “This Is No Longer a Bird Course. The Bird Has Flown”: The Importance of Coming Out from Behind the Teaching Pulpit)

This week, for the first time in my five-year teaching career, I came out to my students as a gay man.

One of my goals for the year was to model for my students what it means to live a readerly and writerly life. Writing a blog accomplishes the latter. Writing with my students does the same. So as we began writing personal narratives on “overcoming adversity,” I did the same activities they did to come up with one of my own.

“Pencils up!” I said. We were poised for the freewriting challenge.

“…and begin!” I used my freshly sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2, to begin the journey. And suddenly, I stopped. I had forgotten to turn off the LCD projector. My writing was displayed for the whole world—the middle school classroom in which I teach—to see.

“Mr. Shinn! Keep writing!” a student yelled from the corner of the classroom.

So I wrote. And at some point during my freewriting challenge the words coming out came out.


greatblueheronNinety-five percent of those who read this poem
will experience a sense of wonder.  The other
five percent are wondering how to arrive
at this statistic.  For evidence is what is needed.

Otherwise the poem will never gain accreditation,
and no one will want to attend.  We could ask
for a show of hands, but some of the readers are related
to the poet, and nothing surprises them anymore.

If the poem is read aloud, carefully trained monitors
could be placed in the audience to count
the number of mouths agape in stupefaction
or in slumber.  How many persons are leaning

forward, eager for the next word?  This is an angle
our monitors can quietly measure, pulling
from their back pockets a gathering hush
of collapsible wooden protractors.



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