“Red Sea” by Joel Deutsch


It felt like instant karma. Payback for almost running over an unsuspecting kid
a few years ago because I hadn’t been smart or brave enough to quit driving
when I should have.

On a bright, warm September Los Angeles afternoon, I was strolling down
Fairfax Avenue past CBS Television City and Farmers Market, headed for the
neighborhood Lucky, my purposeful stride belying the fact that my eyesight
was more than three-fourths obliterated by Retinitis Pigmentosa. But so it

Despite ongoing research into gene therapy, stem cells and retinal
transplantation, among other potential remedies, there as yet exists no
treatment or cure for this predominantly inherited condition that afflicts
something like 100,000 Americans. And so my irreplaceable photoreceptor
cells, which in most people last a lifetime, keep wiping themselves out by a
process of bio-suicide called apoptosis, with nothing to be done about it.
The world looks like a hazy, unfinished painting. After a few nasty mishaps
when the deterioration first became severe, I learned to scan ahead radar-like
as I walked to catch at least a glimpse of approaching hazards. I owned a long,
white cane, but I didn’t have it with me.

Isn’t a cane, I thought, for when life feels constantly like coming awake in a
strange house in the middle of the night? Doesn’t “blind,” after all, simply and
unequivocally, mean sightless?

I’d considered carrying a cane if only as a signal, to forestall incidents like the
time I stumbled into the side mirror of a bus while hurrying clumsily to board,
and the driver, climbing out of his seat to readjust it, inquired sarcastically if I
was blind or something. To simplify the process of asking strangers for help,
as from time to time I must.

But I wasn’t about to do it. No way. For one thing, I had this spooky
foreboding that to take up the cane would be a dangerous capitulation, would
bring on total blindness even faster. Magical thinking, I knew. Primitive. A
child’s metaphysics of causality. But I couldn’t help it. Besides, I’d be marking
myself disabled, for all to see, destroying whatever vestige of masculine appeal
I’d managed to preserve into middle age. I’d become just another blind guy,
groping his expressionless way along on some pathetic errand of the terminal,
aging bachelor. So the cane, as always, was hanging by its elastic handle loop
from a hook inside my living room closet, gathering dust.

Now I was passing beneath the protruding eaves of one of the Farmers Market
buildings, grateful to be shielded from the sun’s dazzle by more than just the
brim of my baseball cap. A few feet away, the midday traffic rushed by in a din
of car engines, horn blasts, diesel rattle, and the concussive thump of
mega-watt, bi-amplified hip-hop bass.

Suddenly, something charged past me, tugging at my T-shirt sleeve. Through
my remaining islands of vision, like a bird darting across a slit in a castle turret,
flashed the profile of a small face, a boyish body hunched forward over
handlebars, a flurry of legs churning.

“Damn,” I yelped, edging over more toward my side. I probably looked, I knew,
as if I might be playing a crazy, private game of chicken, had meant to
surrender those few extra inches of clearance at the last second, but had
simply miscalculated. When the truth, of course, was that I had no warning at
all. Anything moving faster than walking speed can slip from blind spot to blind
spot, completely undetected. Skateboards betray themselves by their clatter,
but Not so bicycles, with their rubber-tired stealth. I took a deep breath and
resolved silently to be yet more vigilant, in the future.

And then something slammed into my shoulder, the same shoulder, Another
flashing image of a small boy, pedaling. But this time, I was flung from my
feet. I felt my skull collide against asphalt. I had a dim but troubling realization
that my body was laid out full length across the northbound curb lane of
Fairfax and that I could, in a heartbeat, be crushed and dismembered. Fueled
by a burst of adrenaline, I made a mad scramble back to safety.

At the point where I had left the sidewalk stood a short, elderly woman. trailing
a two-wheeled wire shopping basket behind her. Crazy,” she clucked
empathetically, “crazy. They almost killed me, too.” She spoke with the
old-time Yiddish accent that is rapidly giving way to Russian as the Fairfax
District and neighboring West Hollywood become the Southern California
version of Brooklyn’s Little Odessa.

“I’m fine,” I assured her, and as she continued on her way, I brushed myself
off, gingerly checking for damage. My head was bruised and bleeding, my
shoulder ached, the forearm I tried to break my fall with was a mass of
lacerations, and my cap was missing, probably pulverized into blue cotton
oblivion. Dazed, but nonetheless still in need of groceries, I proceeded with my
shopping and trudged home to a stinging shower and some bed rest.
The next time I left my apartment, there was a nylon day pack slung jauntily
from one shoulder, the kind students carry their books in. The kind in which
the kid I knocked down that time with my Tercel was carrying his. And in my
right hand, I held the long white cane. Not tapping it in an exploratory arc.
Not yet. But bearing it before me like a protective talisman, a Mosaic staff. And
feeling relief mixed with horror at the sight of people making way for the blind
man I was still in the process of becoming.



Joel Deutsch is the editor of our poetry pages. He is a Los Angeles writer whose articles on his progressive vision loss have appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He has been writing and publishing his poetry for the past forty years and is a contributor to the poetry pages in our Fall 2004 issue. We here at r.kv.r.y. are highly grateful for the time and care he has donated to assuring the high quality of the poetry published here.


“Mediating Evil” by Kenneth Cloke


“If we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations, the faint fluttering of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some say this hope lies in a nation, others in a man. I believe, rather, that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and words every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history.” ~Albert Camus

Politics are among the most ancient, enduring, and consequential sources of conflict, as they determine how power will be distributed among people, including over life and death, wealth and poverty, independence and obedience. Conflicts concerning these issues have
shaped the ways we have interacted as a species over the course of centuries. At their core, as Hannah Arendt wrote, is the conflict that, “from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics: the cause of freedom versus tyranny.”

Freedom and tyranny are factors not only in conflicts between minorities and nation states, but in small, everyday conflicts between parents and teenagers, managers and employees, governments and citizens, and wherever power is distributed unequally. If we define political conflicts as those arising out of or challenging an uneven distribution of power, including relational, religious, and cultural power, it is clear that politics happens everywhere.

In this sense, “the personal is political,” yet the political is also personal, due to globalization, the reach and speed of communication, reduced travel barriers, and increasing environmental interdependency. We can even identify an ecology of conflict, in which rapidly evolving international conflicts have the ability to overwhelm safety and security everywhere. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Sudan, Brazil, and East Timor can no longer be ignored, as they touch our lives in increasingly significant ways.

We therefore require improved understanding, not only of the
conflict in politics, but the politics in conflict. As our world shrinks and
our problems can no longer be solved except internationally, we need
ways of revealing, even in seemingly ordinary, interpersonal conflicts,
the larger issues that connect us across boundaries, and methods for
resolving political conflicts that are sweeping, strategic, interest-based,
and transformational. A clear, unambiguous reason for doing so
occurred on September 11, 2001.

The Response to September 11

As a nation, we need to re-examine how we responded to the conflicts that occurred, and are still occurring, as a result of that tragedy. In the aftermath, we began searching, as individuals, nations, and human beings, for some ritual of release, completion, and
closure; some acknowledgement of the horror, grief, fear, and confusion we experienced. This search led many, unfortunately in my opinion, to seek release for their grief and anger through blind patriotism, constriction of civil liberties, and “preventative” unilateral war, directed not against those responsible for the tragedy, but a nation and people who had nothing to do with it.

This response has led to increased suffering, including grief, fear, divisiveness, and confusion — not only for us, but those whose lives we have similarly shattered by violence. While it is clear to me as a mediator that dozens of alternatives to war in Iraq were readily
available, these were largely ignored. This failure to pursue peaceful alternatives contributed to the rise of aggressive, adversarial attitudes toward those who opposed the war, a refusal to listen or cooperate with other nations, a reduction in our personal freedoms, and a division in national and international consensus, sapping our spirits,
closing our hearts, and dissipating the unity and desire for peace that spontaneously arose after September 11.

By responding to violence with violence, we not only lost a unique opportunity to unite people and governments around the world in opposition to terror, we helped strengthen a culture of war rather than peace, bullying rather than compassion, revenge rather than
forgiveness, and isolation rather than collaboration. By our aggressive statements and unilateral actions, we have deprecated the importance and prestige of peace-making, conflict resolution, international partnership, and public dialogue, thereby contributing to future conflicts, making them more serious, and constricting opportunities for
settlement and resolution.

To have acted differently would have required us to recognize and respond with compassion — not only to the pain we experienced in the U.S., or in Israel, but no less equally to the pain Iraqis and Palestinians have experienced for decades. This would have required us to see ourselves as partners in a world community of nations and peoples, to cease using our superior military and economic power to coerce compliance, and to seek dialogue, negotiation, and mediation before reacting with violence, even against those we have defined as evil. Sometimes, as poet May Sarton wrote, “[o]ne must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.”

September 11 challenges us to take the lead in developing dispute resolution skills and applying them pro-actively, preemptively, and strategically to the full range of international disputes – not to augment our power, wealth, or status, but to create the conditions
under which conflicts can be resolved without war or terror. September 11 challenges us to understand that we cannot separate peace from justice, but must link interest-based conflict resolution skills with an unwavering commitment to political, economic, and social
justice, without which it will prove impossible to build a global community that can resolve its differences without terrorism and war.

Good and Evil in Conflict

Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote, decades before September 11, that “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace in a continual state of alarm (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing them with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” While his description remains valid, our hobgoblins are no longer imaginary.

There are seemingly unending conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistani’s, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Turks and Kurds, Hutu’s and Tutsi’s. In addition to these, there are countless conflicts around the globe between rich and poor, despots and democrats, leftists and rightists, labor and management, natives and settlers, ethnic majorities and minorities, environmentalists and developers, each accusing the other of evil.

The deepest and most serious of these conflicts are no longer confined to the boundaries of nation states, but affect everyone everywhere. Even outwardly minor disputes between competing communities can rapidly escalate into world crises, triggering the slaughter of innocents, rape, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, the ruin of ecosystems, and hatreds that cannot be dissipated, even in generations. Each of these acts directly affects the quality of our lives, no matter how far away we feel from the actual fighting.

Following these disasters come those who pick up the pieces and start over again. While it is always helpful to offer aid in food, clothing and shelter, the victims of these catastrophes also need to develop skills in resolution, recovery, reconciliation, and regeneration of community. Recovery requires acknowledgement of grief and amelioration of loss. Resolution requires the dismantling of systemic sources of conflict within groups and cultures that actively promoted violence. Reconciliation requires the ability to engage in public dialogue, and speak from the heart. Regeneration of community requires the creation of a new culture based on collaboration, compassion, and respect for differences. Together, these require an understanding of how assumptions of evil, even in petty, interpersonal disputes, lead to war and terrorism.

In political conflicts, it is common for each side to label the other evil. Yet what is evil to one is often good to another, revealing that evil is present in miniature in every conflict. Evil sometimes originates in the attribution of blame to someone other than ourselves for harm
that has befallen us, or the assumption that our pain was caused by our opponent’s pernicious intentions. Blaming others for our suffering allows us to externalize our fears, vent our outrage, and punish our enemies, or coerce them into doing what we want against their wishes. It allows us to take what belongs to them, place our interests over, against, and above theirs, and ignore their allegations of our wrongdoing.

Evil is not initially a grand thing, but begins innocuously with a constriction of empathy and compassion, leading ultimately to an inability to find the other within the self. It proceeds by replacing empathy with antipathy, love with hate, trust with suspicion, and confidence with fear. Finally, it exalts these negative attitudes as virtues, allows them to emerge from hiding, punishes those who oppose them, and causes others to respond in ways that justify their use.

A potential for evil is thus created every time we draw a line that separates self from other within ourselves. This line expands when fear and hatred are directed against others and we remain silent or do nothing to prevent it; when dissenters are described as traitorous or
evil and we allow them to be silenced, isolated, discriminated against, or punished; when negative values are exalted and collaboration, dialogue, and conflict resolution are abandoned and we do not object.

At a more subtle level, identifying others as evil is simply a justification and catalyst for our own pernicious actions. By defining “them” as bad, we implicitly define ourselves as good and give ourselves permission to act against them in ways that would appear evil to outside observers who were not aware of their prior evil acts. In this way, their evil mirrors our diminished capacity for empathy and compassion, and telegraphs our plans for their eventual punishment. The worse we plan to do to them, the worse we need them to appear, so as to avoid the impression that we are the aggressor. The ultimate purpose of every accusation of evil is thus to create the self-permission, win the approval of outsiders, and establish the moral logic required to justify committing evil oneself.

Allegations of evil are therefore directly connected with the unequal distribution and adversarial exercise of power. The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote that perceptions of good and evil originated historically in social relationships of domination and dependency between unequal economic classes:

[T]he judgment good does not originate with those to whom the good has been done. Rather, it was the “good” themselves, that is to say the noble, mighty, highly placed, and high-minded who decreed themselves and their actions to be good, i.e., belonging to the highest rank, in contradistinction to all that was base, low-minded and plebian…. [Thus, the] origin of the opposites good and bad is to be found in the pathos of nobility and distance, representing the dominant temper of a higher, ruling class in relation to a lower, dependent one.

In contemporary terms, if we, as individuals or nations, believe ourselves to be good and possess more power than others, we will naturally seek to justify our use of unequal power by indicating our intention to use it for the benefit of those with fewer resources who are less good. But without empathy, compassion, and power-sharing, this will inevitably evolve into a belief that whatever benefits us must benefit them also. This will lead us to regard their criticism of our self-interested benevolence as ill-mannered and ungrateful, and their
opposition to our power as support for evil. We will then interpret their desire for  self-determination as rebellion and perhaps, as in Vietnam, seek to “kill them for their own good.”

In order to exercise our power without experiencing injury or guilt, we are increasingly driven to dismantle our empathy and compassion until we are no longer able to recognize our opponents as similar to ourselves. We can then feel justified in wielding power selfishly and attacking them, or anyone who tries to curb our power or equalize its distribution. It is at this point that simple, natural, innocent, self-interest begins its descent into evil. At every step, it is aided by anger, fear, jealousy, pain, guilt, grief, and shame, and the suppression of empathy and compassion.

Yet all these dynamics occur on a small scale in countless petty personal conflicts every day, and are used to justify our mistreatment of others, including children, parents, spouses, siblings, neighbors, employees, even strangers on the street. Every dominant individual, organization, class, culture, and nation manufactures stories and allegations of evil to justify withholding compassion, using power selfishly, and violating their own ethical or moral principles in response to perceived enemies. Worse, these small scale justifications can be organized and manipulated on a national scale to secure permission for war and genocide, just as war and genocide give permission to individuals to act aggressively and resist reconciliation in their personal conflicts.

For these reasons, we need to carefully consider how, as individuals and nations, we define our enemies, disarm our empathy and compassion, organize our hatreds, and rationalize our destructive acts through conflict. For example, we frequently combine the
following elements to create circular definitions of “the enemy”:

Assumption of Injurious Intentions (they intended to cause the harm we experienced)
Distrust (every idea or statement made by them is wrong or proposed for dishonest reasons) Externalization of Guilt (everything bad or wrong is their fault Attribution of Evil (they want to destroy us and what we value most, and must therefore be destroyed)
Zero-Sum Expectation (everything that benefits them harms us, and vice versa)
Paranoia and Preoccupation with Disloyalty (any criticism of us or praise of them is disloyal and treasonous) Prejudgment (everyone in the enemy group is an enemy)
Suppression of Empathy (we have nothing in common and considering them human is dangerous) Isolation and Impasse (blanket rejection of dialogue, negotiation, cooperation, and conflict resolution) Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (their evil makes it permissible for us to be
an enemy to them)

[Based partly on work by Kurt R. and Kati Spillman]

The Language of Conflict

In every country, there are not only national languages and local dialects, but thousands of micro-languages, ranging from professional terminology to ethnic phraseology, popular slang, bureaucratic technicality, family vernacular, and generational jargon. There are, for
example, distinct languages for organizational management, political candidacy, ethnic minorities, social classes, economic cycles, and criminal pursuits. Each of these languages serves a unique purpose and produces unique results in the attitudes and behaviors of those who use them.

There is also a distinct language of conflict. There is the conscious use of exaggerated statements to disguise requests for reassurance, as in stock phrases such as “you always,” and “you never.” These words are not intended as statements of fact, but mean “You do too much or too little of X for me” and “I would appreciate it if you would do X less or more.” Yet the mere use of these phrases indicates the presence of deeper emotional problems, impelling us to:

  • Camouflage our requests as statements of fact
  • Exaggerate the truth
  • Stereotype others as unreasonable
  • Not take responsibility for communicating our needs
  • Fail to accurately describe what we really want from others
  • Miss opportunities to become vulnerable and invite others into more intimate conversation
  • Ignore others needs, explanations, or reasons for acting in their
  • Miss openings to collaboratively negotiate for satisfaction of
    mutual needs

When we are uncomfortable with intense emotions, or want to camouflage a hidden agenda, it becomes difficult to describe our feelings accurately. When asked how we feel, we use words implying that we are being coerced by others, instead of words accepting responsibility for how we feel about what others have done. Our words contain judgments – not merely about what others did, but of who they are. We say, for example, “He is infuriating,” or “He made me mad,” instead of “I am angry.” Or, “She is a blabbermouth,”
instead of “I feel betrayed.” Or “He is out to get me,” instead of “I am afraid he is going to fire me.”

By translating or reframing these statements, we convert a language of powerlessness into a language of empowerment, just as do by turning “you” statements into “I” statements, being precise about what we are feeling, transforming conflict stories, and
recognizing that beneath accusations lie confessions and requests, either of which serves our interests better. These are all valuable interventions, but they do not address the underlying problem. A more careful examination of the language used in political conflicts
reveals a deep set of issues.

Psychologist Renana Brooks describes the ways language is used to reinforce abuse and domination in power relationships. She cites, for example, broad statements that are so abstract and meaningless they cannot be opposed; excessive personalization of issues so they can only be addressed individually; negative frameworks that reinforce pessimistic /images of the world; and inculcation of a “learned helplessness” that assumes change is impossible. Mexican novelist Octavio Paz describes how this deterioration of language reflects a broader social and political decay:

When a society decays, it is language that is first to become gangrenous… and alongside oratory, with its plastic flowers, there is the barbarous syntax in many of our newspapers, the foolishness of language on loudspeakers and the radio, the loathsome vulgarities of advertising — all that asphyxiating rhetoric.

Language in organizations can also become an instrument of domination and control, reinforcing assumptions of hierarchy, bureaucracy and autocracy. Even seemingly innocuous corporate expressions such as “upper management,” “direct reports,” “bottom
line,” “alignment,” “getting people on board,” “raising the bar,” “lean and mean,” “accountability,” “pushing the envelope,” and similar expressions reveal myths and assumptions that distortcommunications. In similar ways, the language of law is replete
with terminology conveying arrogance, incomprehension, and hostility directed toward emotionality, vulnerability, artistic thinking, human error, collective responsibility, compassion, frivolity, redemption, play, and forgiveness.

Language and Fascism

Perhaps the best example of the deterioration of language and its use to reinforce
power, arrogance, and domination in political conflicts is the rise of fascism in
Germany. As Victor Klemperer brilliantly revealed in The Language of the Third
Reich, the Nazis deliberately manipulated language in order to change the way people
thought about politics and daily life. By using repetitive stereotyping, emotional
superlatives, and romantic adjectives; hijacking or poisoning formerly positive terms
such as “collective,” “followers,” and “faith;” transforming formerly negative words
into positives, such as “domination,” “fanatical,” and “obedient;” militarizing and
brutalizing common speech; discounting reason and elevating feelings; using “big
lies” and doublespeak; and generally debasing and “dumbing down” ordinary
language, the Nazis fundamentally altered the way people thought and behaved.

This led Italian novelist and semiologist Umberto Eco to brilliantly define fascism as
“the simplification of language to the point that complex thought becomes
impossible.” This simplification is revealed not only in the crude sloganeering and
stereotyping of fascist rhetoric, but in the minor ways ordinary speech is transformed
into sermons, prepared scripts, and propaganda, as can be seen, for example, in
media coverage following the deaths of political leaders.

In Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, Franz Neumann
analyzed the Nazi’s transformation of ordinary speech into fascist propaganda. He
began by profoundly defining propaganda as “violence committed against the soul,”

Propaganda is not a substitute for violence, but one of its aspects. The two
have identical purposes of making men amenable to control from above. Terror
and its display in propaganda go hand in hand…. The superiority of National
Socialist [Nazi] propaganda lies in the complete transformation of culture into a
saleable commodity.

In Neumann’s view, democratic arguments could never compete with Nazi
propaganda, not only because the latter was simpler and appealed to more primitive
instincts, but because the Nazi’s were willing to use any contrivance, including
deliberate lies, in order to succeed. As Adolph Hitler made clear in Mein Kampf:

Propaganda must not serve the truth…. All propaganda must be so popular and
on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those toward whom it
is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda
must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by
it…. The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the
vast masses of a nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived
than they are consciously and intentionally bad.

It is precisely this transformation of confession into accusation, analysis into
propaganda, and fact into lie and doublespeak; this use of language as a mere means
that does not count, and can therefore be distorted with impunity; this huckstering
salesman’s approach to truth, that allows it to hide and justify all manner of political
and personal crimes. As George Orwell wrote, in “Politics and the English Language,”

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the
indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian
purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed
be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to
face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging
and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombed from the air, the
inhabitants are driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the
huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of
peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no
more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of
frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of
the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination
of unreliable elements.

The simplification, distortion, and abuse of language by turning it into propaganda
is not restricted to fascist or Stalinist states, but is responsive to a far deeper
problem, which is the forced, impossible effort to suppress half of a paradox or
polarity, deny part of a contradiction, and obstruct inevitable changes. Alex Cary, for
example, attributes the widespread use of propaganda to increasing conflict between
democracy and corporate power:

The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great
political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power,
and the growth of propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power
against democracy.

Yet the same distortion of language into propaganda can be heard in statements
made by US political leaders prior to the war in Iraq, falsely collapsing Iraq into
Saddam Hussein, accusing him of hiding weapons of mass destruction that could
threaten US cities, linking September 11 to the Iraqi government, stereotyping Arabs
as terrorists, demonizing international opposition to the war, and making “preventive
war” seem necessary and inevitable.

Similar distortions can also be recognized in ordinary conflict stories, which
routinely demonize and stereotype our opponents, link them with events beyond
their control, make them seem more powerful than they actually are, ignore the
systemic sources of our suffering, personalize our problems, and trigger the fear and
anger that make our stories successful. For this reason, it is important to recognize
that evil is not something “out there,” inside someone else, beyond our reach, or in
poorer nations, but also something “in here,” inside ourselves, within our reach, and
happening every day in wealthier nations, including the US.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts

There have been countless conflicts in the history of the world in which accusations
of evil have been used to justify the commission of atrocities. A painful example
today is the Middle East, where there is so much raw, unresolved grief and insensible
hatred that antagonisms feel more like civil wars than wars between opposing
states. Entire nations vie, not only in their capacity for revenge, but in their stubborn
refusal to accept the necessity of learning how to live together and accept joint
responsibility for their slaughter of innocents. As former Israeli Prime Minister Golda
Meir painfully noted: “We can forgive the Palestinians for murdering our children,
but we can never forgive them for forcing us to murder theirs.”

When we examine these chronic revengeful conflicts, we cannot exclude Ireland,
the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Koreas, Southern Africa, and examples of
internecine warfare and national vendetta, from which no region is immune. By
doing so, we can identify seven features that routinely block resolution and invite
assumptions of evil. These include:

  1. Continuous, intimate, non-consensual relationships between closely
    related yet diverse parties
  2. Gross inequalities in the allocation and distribution of scarce resources, power, wealth, and status
  3. Disrespectful, unfair, oppressive, and exploitative attitudes and
    behaviors by those with more power against those with less
  4. Contemptuous, hostile, jealous, and resentful attitudes and behaviors
    by those with less power against those with more
  5. Use of “legitimate” forms of power to coerce or manipulate outcomes
    favoring the powerful and disfavoring the powerless
  6. Use of “illegitimate” forms of power by the powerless to block or
    provide wider access to legitimate forms of power controlled by the powerful
  7. Sufficient accumulation of unresolved grief, loss, fear, and pain on both
    sides to fuel allegations of evil, suppress compassion, amplify rage, encourage
    revenge, and obstruct closure.

These features can also be found in a wide range of personal, familial, organizational,
social, economic, and political conflicts. On every level and scale, we become stuck in
conflicts and justify our negative behaviors based on genuine experiences of pain
and anger that bolster our assumptions of evil. At a simple level, it feels logical: “If I
am good and have been hurt by you, it can only be because you are the kind of
person who hurts people for no reason.” In the process, we successfully disregard
the injuries and insensitivities we caused, stereotype our opponent, and justify our
refusal to listen to their explanations or pain because ours have not been heard or

At a deeper level, everyone always and everywhere seeks power or control over their
environment, and few seek to share it or are willing to be on the unequal side of its
distribution. Yet power is fluid by nature and cannot be fixed. This causes those
who possess it to hoard it and distrust anyone who does not, and those who lack it
to act in ways that justify its use and intensify their desire to seize it. Since neither
side knows how to collaborate without appearing to betray their family, nation,
culture, or cause, their conflict slips into a descending cycle of accusation and
denunciation, rebellion and repression, terror and war.

The coexistence of intimacy with inequality and exploitation inevitably leads the
powerful to hold the powerless in a subordinate, dependent position, triggering a
polarization of attitudes and cascade of aggressive behaviors that lead to accusations
of evil on both sides. A subconscious awareness of the unfairness of inequality and
exploitation in the minds of the powerful lead them to fear the loss of their unequal
status and the retributive violence of the powerless. This causes them to become
further entrenched, protect their gains, and resist liberalization, democratization,
collaboration, and conflict resolution, which require power sharing.

The powerful increasingly come to believe they have only two alternatives: either
agree to the demands of the powerless and lose power for themselves, their families,
friends, and what they see as their civilizing mission; or use “legitimate” forms of
power to crush the powerless, thereby reinforcing the opposition of those they have
oppressed, strengthening their resistance, and encouraging them to use violence or
terror to achieve what they see as justice. These dynamics lead to stereotyping,
prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization of the powerless, including genocide
and ethnic cleansing, on the assumption that the powerless as a group are innately

In response, the powerless increasingly come to believe they also have only two
alternatives: either accept a temporary, tactical surrender, thereby permitting
inequality and exploitation to continue unabated; or use what the powerful define as
“illegitimate” forms of power to break their monopoly and end their exclusive control
over power and resources, thereby reinforcing the fears of the powerful,
strengthening their resistance, and encouraging continued destruction on both
sides. Each side behaves toward the other in ways that justify their worst fears,
causing the engine of violence to turn in a self-destructive circle.

Using interest-based conflict resolution methods, it is possible to identify a third
choice for both sides, which is to share their problems, acknowledge that they are
brothers, recognize that the true evil is not who they are, but their readiness to
regard each other as evil, and that they cannot brutalize each other without
brutalizing themselves. It is to understand that nothing can be gained through other
methods that is worth the cost; that their mutual slaughter has been a gigantic,
tragic, comic, pointless waste; and that they can reach out at any time to their
opponents without glossing over their differences. It is to recognize that there are
no differences they cannot solve through dialogue, negotiation, and conflict
resolution, or that are worth the damage created by their assumptions of evil. It is
to engage in open, honest, collaborative, on-going negotiations over issues of justice
and equality; strengthen political, economic, and social democracy; develop interest-
based conflict resolution skills; and elicit heartfelt communications that invite truth
and reconciliation.

How Should We Respond to Evil?

None of this is intended to imply that there is no such thing as evil, or that it is
justifiable, but rather that there is a genesis and logic to its development which,
when ignored, call forth adjunct evils in response. Evil is like a cancer that replicates
itself by demanding its own destruction, but only through evil means. As the Greek
playwright Sophocles wrote, “With evil all around me/There is nothing I can do that
is not evil.”

Evil has been attributed to everything from the external intervention of Satan to the
natural, internal operations of the Id. The French Philosopher Blaise Pascal thought
it came from “being unable to sit still in a room,” while Novelist Jeanette Winterson
wrote that “to change something you do not understand is the true nature of evil.”
Evil is simply the opposite of good, or rather, the good of one that undermines or
counteracts the good of another, as what benefits a parasite destroys its host. Yet if
good and evil are opposites, it is impossible to end one without also ending the

From a conflict resolution perspective, evil is sometimes just a story describing what
our opponents did to harm us, while leaving out what we did to harm them.
Sometimes it is a failure to separate the act that caused harm from the people who
engaged in it, or an inability due to previous conflicts to experience empathy or
compassion for others. Sometimes it is negligence, accident, or false assumptions.
Sometimes it is deep disappointment, the outpourings of a culture of defeat, or a
desire to blame others for our own false expectations. Sometimes it is a way of
depriving others of the happiness we lost, or subconsciously trying to recreate in
others the conditions that caused us pain. As Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote: “No
man consciously chooses evil because it is evil, he only mistakes it for the happiness
that he seeks.”

Yet there are people who take pleasure in the suffering of others, and it is little
consolation to know they had an unhappy childhood or are merely mistaken in
seeking their happiness when we suffer as a result of their actions. While there is
good in the worst of us and evil in the best of us, there are hierarchies of evil, and
some, like those who engineered the holocaust, belong to a different order. What,
then, do we do in the face of such evil?

While there may be people, times, and places when it is impossible not to answer
violence with violence and evil with evil, it is difficult to distinguish these moments
from those that occur everyday in ordinary interpersonal conflicts, except by
subjective measurements of their proximity and impact on us. The greater and closer
the harm feels to us, the easier it is to justify committing evil in response. Do minor
evils then justify minor evils in response? If so, where does it end? And who
decides which evil is worse, or whose suffering is greater and more deserving of

Many people view truth, forgiveness, and reconciliation as laudable, yet impractical in
the face of evil and terror, and believe the only effective response is to crush them
wherever they exist with whatever power is available. Yet evil has always been a
response to prior evil acts that are used to justify the commission of equal or greater
evils in return. In this way, “eye for an eye” responses add to the total sum of
blindness, while assumptions of evil turn suffering in a circle.

While there may be times, as Bertold Brecht wrote, when it is necessary to “embrace
the butcher” to end an evil that will not desist until forced to do so, these cases
cannot be contained or defined. How do we know we are not simply transferring our
pain to someone else? When and how do we stop? What do we do in response to
subtler forms of terror, and commonplace evils? Who do we become as a result? At
what price? As Dwight Eisenhower told the London Guardian, “Every gun that is
made, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger
and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

Ultimately, there are three consistent responses to evil that do not end up replicating
it. The first is to use whatever means may be required to isolate, disarm, and contain
it, while at the same time addressing the underlying injustices that brought it into
existence. The second is to shift the way we react from power- to rights- to interest-
based approaches that do not invite evil responses. The third is to systematically
strengthen our skills and abilities in heart-based communications, including
forgiveness and reconciliation, which disable evil at its source in the tormented hearts
and minds of those who feel powerless to end or grieve their suffering.

These responses require us to encourage dialogue, joint problem solving, and
conflict resolution, while simultaneously acting to discourage vengeance, retaliation,
and unilateralism. They require us to negotiate, especially with our enemies, while
simultaneously minimizing their ability to create harm. They require us to accept
responsibility, for example, for the rise of fascism, as a result of our imposition of a
vindictive Treaty at Versailles, unwillingness to confront anti-Semitism, support for
brutal Tsarist regimes that inspired the Russian Revolution, lack of financial aid for
the struggling Weimar Republic, failure to assist the Spanish Republic, and similar
acts. Finally, they require us to recognize that can be no peace without justice there.

No Justice, No Peace

In order to discourage assumptions, allegations, and acts of evil and sustain warring
parties in dialogue and negotiation, we need to recognize that the true evil is
injustice, and as long as it continues, peace will be fleeting, fragile, and a
disappointing reminder of all we have suffered and lost. Under such conditions it is
easy to agree with Socrates’ adversary Thrasymachus that “justice is the interest of
the stronger,” or Franz Kafka that it is “a fugitive from the winning camp.”

Genuine, lasting peace is impossible in the absence of justice. Where injustice
prevails, peace becomes merely a way of masking and compounding prior crimes,
impeding necessary changes, and rationalizing injustices. As the Trappist monk
Thomas Merton presciently observed:

To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without
fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob
others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the
goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed
those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply
means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives
devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and leisure….
[T]heir idea of peace was only another form of war.

When millions lack the essentials of life, peace becomes a sanction for continued
suffering, and compromise a front for capitulation, passivity, and acceptance of
injustice. This led anthropologist Laura Nader to criticize mediation for its willingness
to “trade justice for harmony.” True peace requires justice and a dedication to
satisfying basic human needs, otherwise it is merely the self-interest of the satisfied,
the ruling clique, the oppressors, the victors in search of further spoils.

For peace to be achieved in the Middle East or elsewhere, it is essential that we
neither trivialize conflict nor become stuck in the language of good and evil, but work
collaboratively and compassionately to redress the underlying injustices and pain
each side caused the other. Ultimately, this means sharing power and resources,
advantages and disadvantages, successes and failures, and satisfying everyone’s
legitimate interests. It means collaborating and making decisions together. It means
giving up being right and assuming others are wrong. It means taking the time to
work through our differences, and making our opponents interests our own.

In helping to make these shifts and move from Apartheid to integration, the South
African Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that for people to reach
forgiveness, they needed to exchange personal stories of anger, fear, pain, jealousy,
guilt, grief, and shame; to empathize, recognize, and acknowledge each other’s
interests; to engage in open, honest dialogue; to reorient themselves to the future;
to participate in rituals of collective grief that released their pain and loss; and to
mourn those who died because neither side had the wisdom or courage to apologize
for their assumptions of evil, or the evil they caused their opponents and themselves.

At the same time, they also needed to improve the daily lives of those who suffered
and were treated unjustly under apartheid. Where shanty towns coexist with
country clubs, peace cannot be lasting or secure. Where some go hungry while
others are well-fed, terror and violence are nourished. In the end, it comes down to
a question of sharing wealth and power, realizing that we are all one family, and that
an injury to one is genuinely an injury to all.

Making justice an integral part of conflict resolution and the search for peaceful
solutions means not merely settling conflicts, but resolving, transforming, and
transcending them by turning them into levers of social dialogue and learning,
catalysts of community and collaboration, and commitments to political, economic,
and social change. By failing to take these additional remedial steps, we make justice
secondary to peace, undermine both, guarantee the continuation of our conflicts, and
prepare the way for more to come.

From Power and Rights to Interests

Political conflicts can only support justice and serve as engines of constructive
political, economic, and social development if the means and methods by which they
are resolved promote just, collaborative ends. The principal means we have used to
resolve political conflicts for thousands of years have been oriented toward power,
including war, genocide, terror, domination, and suppression of those seeking

Over the last several centuries, we have developed less destructive methods of
resolving conflicts based on rights, including adjudication, adversarial negotiations,
bureaucratic procedures, coercion, and isolation of those seeking change. What we
now require are interest-based methods for resolving political, economic, and social
conflicts that integrate peace with justice and undermine resort to evil, including
informal problem solving, collaborative negotiation, team and community building,
consensus decision making, public dialogue, mediation, and actively rewarding those
seeking change.

The problem with most efforts to suppress evil or redress injustices is that they
adopt power- or rights-based approaches which result in deeper polarization,
resistance, and win/lose outcomes that simply trade one form of evil or injustice for
another. One side then becomes frightened of going too far, tired of fighting, willing
to tolerate continuing injustices, and settles or compromises their conflicts rather
than resolving, transforming, or transcending them.

Approaching evil and injustice from an interest-based perspective means listening to
the deeper truths that gave rise to them, extending compassion even to those who
were responsible for evils or injustices, and seeking not merely to replace one evil or
injustice with another, but to reduce their attractiveness by designing outcomes,
processes, and relationships that encourage adversaries to work collaboratively to
satisfy their interests.

Evil and injustice can therefore be considered byproducts of reliance on power or
rights, and failures or refusals to learn and evolve. All political systems generate
chronic conflicts that reveal their internal weaknesses, external pressures, and
demands for evolutionary change. Power- and rights-based systems are adversarial
and unstable, and therefore avoid, deny, resist, and defend themselves against
change. As a result, they suppress conflicts or treat them as purely interpersonal,
leaving insiders less informed and able to adapt, and outsiders feeling they were
treated unjustly and contemplating evil in response.

As pressures to change increase, these systems must either adapt, or turn
reactionary and take a punitive, retaliatory attitude toward those seeking to promote
change, delaying their own evolution. Only interest-based systems are fully able to
seek out their weaknesses, proactively evolve, transform conflicts into sources of
learning, and celebrate those who brought them to their attention.

Conflict and Political Change

Conflict is the principal means by which significant social and political changes have
taken place throughout history. Wars and revolutions can be understood as efforts
to resolve deep-seated political, economic, and social conflicts for which no other
means of resolution was understood or acceptable to either or both sides, blocking
evolutionary change.

When conflicts and pressure to change accumulate, even trivial interpersonal
disputes can stimulate far-reaching systemic transformations. In any fragile system,
be it familial, organizational, social, or political, resolving conflict can therefore
become a dangerous, even revolutionary activity, because it encourages people to
redress their injustices, collaborate on solutions, and evolve in ways that could
fundamentally transform the system. Indeed, it is possible to regard every
collaborative, interest-based effort to resolve systemic conflict as a small but
significant resolution, transformation, and transcendence of the system that gave rise
to it.

Collaborative, interest-based processes can “socialize,” or broaden our conflicts,
allowing us to address their systemic sources through group dialogue and discussion,
analysis of systemic issues, and recommendations for preventative, system-wide,
strategic improvement without political intrigue and infighting. Responsibility for
resolving conflicts can then be extended beyond a small circle of primary antagonists
to include allies, secret partners, neutral bystanders, and others whose relationship
to the participants or issues could make complete solutions possible.

Interest-based conflict resolution techniques offer political systems democratic,
socially engaging methods for learning and evolving through conflict. They free us
to address political disputes based on equality, respect for diversity, recognition of
interests, principled dialogue, collaborative negotiation, and consensus, rather than a
desire to retain power or rights. In these ways, peace merges with justice,
encouraging learning and evolution.

Yet we can go further and develop preventative, strategic, scale-free approaches to
conflict resolution that use storytelling techniques, for example, to promote
understanding between hostile social groups; public dialogue techniques to stimulate
understanding between representatives of opposing points of view; public policy and
environmental mediation techniques to locate complex solutions to intractable
political problems; prejudice reduction and bias awareness techniques to increase
cross-cultural understanding; and heart-based techniques such as truth and
reconciliation commissions to promote reconciliation.

Whether our conflicts are intensely personal and between private individuals, or
intensely political and between nations and cultures, three critical areas require on-
going improvement and transformation. These are: our personal capacity for
introspection, integrity, and spiritual growth; our interpersonal capacity for
egalitarian, collaborative, heartfelt communication and relationships; and our social,
economic, and political capacity for designing preventative, systemic, strategic
approaches to conflict resolution, community, and change.

By creatively combining conflict resolution systems design principles with strategic
planning, team building, meditation and spiritual practices, community organizing,
and heart-based conflict resolution techniques, we can significantly improve our
ability to resolve international political and cross-cultural disputes before they
become needlessly destructive. Yet conflict resolution carries a price in the form of
our willingness to listen to ideas we dislike and share power and control over
outcomes with people different from ourselves.

Ultimately, transcending conflict means giving up unjust, unequal power- and rights-
based systems, and seeking instead to satisfy interests, which is why we seek power
and rights in the first place. This means surrendering our power to take from others
what does not belong to us, and right to coerce them into giving what they are
otherwise unwilling to give. Accepting this price allows us to achieve a higher value
and right, merge peace with justice, and immensely improve our personal and
political lives.



Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution. He is a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts. He is a nationally recognized leader in the field of conflict resolution. His consulting and training practice includes organizational change, leadership, communication, conflict
resolution, negotiation, team building and strategic planning. He is a published author of Mediation: Revenge and the Magic of Forgiveness and Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution. He is co-author with Joan Goldsmith of Thank God It’s Monday! 14 Values We Need to Humanize The Way We Work; Resolving Conflicts at Work: A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job; Resolving Personal and Organizational Disputes: Stories of Transformation and Forgiveness; The End of Management and The Rise of Organizational Democracy; and,The Art of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness and Authenticity at Work .

“Epitaph for an Actor” by Paul Hostovsky


He was good at voices.
Accents, affects, rings of things.
A dialect geographer
moving among men’s diphthongs
and their r-droppings,
learning them all
by heart.

He appeared and disappeared,
himself like an r,
leaving one mouth for another, one
place for another, a floater
staying afloat by never
getting down to the heart
of anything.

He was good at voices though.
And faces.
His mouth was the only place
all the voices and faces
met. His mouth was a kiss. It was
many kisses.



Paul Hostovsky has new poems appearing or forthcoming in Free Lunch, New
Delta Review, Bryant Literary Review, Visions International, Nebo, Slant, FRiGG, Driftwood, Heartlodge, Rock & Sling, ByLine
and others. He works in Boston as an Interpreter for the Deaf.


“Denial” by Paul Hostovsky


When I was small I had this fear of big
dogs turning up round bends and corners, hounds
that all along the long and convoluted zig-
zag way I walked home from school to confound them
found me–always. I had but one defense
which I learned from Winnie the Pooh: simply hum
a little tune. It throws them off the scent
of your fear. Pretend to consider the weather: tum ti tum.
Denial, that old sweet song in the face of death.
It’s always been the way to go, even
in the mouth of death–the jowls and drool and halitosis.
Denial, perfected, is a faith that works. Take St. Stephen
full of arrows, take the Gnostics full of gnosis.
We sang out sweetly who denied, though we breathed in
dog breath.



Paul Hostovsky has new poems appearing or forthcoming in Free Lunch, New
Delta Review, Bryant Literary Review, Visions International, Nebo, Slant, FRiGG, Driftwood, Heartlodge, Rock & Sling, ByLine
and others. He works in Boston as an Interpreter for the Deaf.


“Statement” by Paul Hostovsky


When they asked me why I stole the flute I said
because it was beautiful
leaning there against the wall like a spine
seductively, and gleaming

within easy reach of my single
paid for seat
where I sat all alone admiring it
as the orchestra warmed up and the scales of the flutes

climbed higher than all the rest of the instruments,
reaching up even to the chandeliers
where they seemed to be warning of some danger, of me perhaps

for I’d already made up my mind what I would say
when they asked me why I stole the flute.

Then they asked me why I returned the flute and I said
because it hurt, it was that beautiful, that
impossible. Sharp like a spine–

the keys at first digging into my skin
when I slipped it under my shirt as the lights dimmed,
then ran with it out the door and down the street and through

the night. But also, from the moment I lifted the thing
I couldn’t put it down: wherever I tried
to stash it or ditch it, it stuck out painfully

like some herniated part of the body
of beauty, the inner beauty of the world: secret, silver
and singing out from the enclosure of

my desire for it. I couldn’t keep it, I couldn’t lose it,
I couldn’t even play it. So I gave it back and now

I only want to be believed.



Paul Hostovsky has new poems appearing or forthcoming in Free Lunch, New Delta Review, Bryant Literary Review, Visions International, Nebo, Slant, FRiGG, Driftwood, Heartlodge, Rock & Sling, ByLine and others. He works in Boston as an Interpreter for the Deaf.


“Dark Poets–Rehab This Time” by David Breeden


(for Victoria)

The poet in black
Tee shirt, cuts up
And back her forearms
Hair dyed black
We talk about Bukowski
We talk about Ginsberg

Kerouac and how
Society really bites
We talk about

Not killing ourselves this time
We hope—me old
Her young—we may not
Kill ourselves this time

We hope to find
God in the words this time
That this time we may write ourselves whole
Back to sane this time



Dr. David Breeden has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He has published eight books of poetry and four novels. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in such journals as Mississippi Review, Nebo, Poet Lore, Mid-American Review, North Atlantic Review, Boston Literary Review, Turnstile, Nidus, Paragraph, and New Texas. His short film House Whine was funded by the British Columbia Arts Council. His film Off the Wall won “Best of Fest” at the Great Lakes Film Festival. His next novel, A Poet’s Guide to Divorce, will appear soon from Fine Tooth Press. His newest book of poetry, Ice Cream and Suicide, was recently published by UKA Press in the United Kingdom.


“Heart Murmurs” by Suzanne Nielsen


I am a scary monster; I knew it when my mama first told me to grow my bangs out to hide my face. The scar from where I fell and rammed the Pyrex dish in my forehead glitters in the sunlight. Mrs. Rouston, mama’s friend down the alley wanted me to bring mama home some home baked scalloped potatoes. I was running past Rowan Mastro’s house cuz he always throws dirt at my head and I didn’t want to get in mixed with the potatoes when I tripped and fell, breaking the glass and watching the potatoes scatter like dead chicks after Easter Sunday.

I am scary in other ways too. I have a hole in my heart that will kill me someday. No one knows it’s there except Mama and Grandpa. I was born with it. Grandpa said if Mama wouldn’t have smoked when she was pregnant with me I’d have a solid heart with no blemishes at all but Mama has an addiction to tobacco. She gave up drinking though so I’m real proud of her for that.

My heart beats funny too; it’s got a murmur. When I was littler, I used to think it was called a heart murderer. Mama told me I wasn’t a heart murderer, that was my daddy. He took off before I was born and she’s never heard from him since. I’m thankful I don’t have no heart murdering instincts inside me. She said if it wasn’t for my hole, I’d be as solid as Grace Mitchell who lives down the street. Grace is my age and has a beautiful face and bangs that she curls the ends of so they flip under. Mama don’t like Grace’s mama too much. I guess Grace’s mama talks bad about us cause we are poor. I have underpants that say the seven days of the week on them that my grandpa bought me at Shopper’s City. I don’t think we’re poor. We live with my grandpa and he has a real nice house where I share a room with my mama. Mama works nights so it’s like having my very own room.

Tonight Grandpa told me I could have Grace sleep over and we could drink chocolate milk and eat Lorna Doone Vanilla Wafers in bed. He said he’d let me bring the TV in my room so we could watch it until late in the night. It’s Saturday night and Mama goes out after her job at the dry cleaners with her friend Toby so Grace can sleep in Mama’s bed. I am excited but when Grandpa calls Grace’s mama I find out that Grace has other plans. Grandpa instead takes me down to the lake and we fish for sunnies from shore. It’s a nice evening in July. I’d rather be with Grandpa anyway, come to think of it. It’s Saturday and I’m wearing my Wednesday underwear cause my mama forgot to wash. I don’t have to explain to Grandpa about this. I don’t have to explain to him why I get sometimes tired, like now, because he knows my heart needs more rest than other people’s. I’d have to make up stories to tell Grace, and with a name like Grace, I’d feel ashamed. I am a scary monster. But I am not a murderer.



Suzanne Nielsen’s work has been published in various literary journals nationally and internationally; most recently her work has appeared in The Comstock Review, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Pedestal, and 580 Split.  Upcoming work will appear in Banyan Review and Gin Bender Poetry Review.  So’ham Books will publish her collection of poetry titled “East of the River,” in October 2005. Nielsen received a BA in Writing from Metropolitan State University, and a MALS degree with an emphasis in writing from Hamline University where she is currently completing her doctorate work in Education.


“William Cullen Bryant Day” by Zoe Keithley


7:54 am, October 15, 1997.
Thursday. William Cullen Bryant day.

I pick my way across the parking lot to pull on the only handle I can find. A weather-
beaten Our Children Our Future emblem swings outward. On the blast of over-
heated air I smell boiled hot dogs. Most students will eat out of the vending
machines today. My name is Isa Fitzgerald.

I step inside to a metal detector. The guard takes in my trench coat, sensible shoes
and briefcase, waves me on.

“Good morning!” I chirp, carefully cheerful in the foreign culture of the high school—
that’s what they call it in edu-speak, a “culture.” The students are a “population”
with an “ethnic profile”; the school has “demographics,” a “poverty index”,  a “drop-
out rate” and a “table of negative academic achievement”.

A river of bodies boils by, up stairwells, down hallways and into classrooms on three
floors. The open smell of autumn on hair, jackets and book bags evaporates in the
heat of the building. Dress code requires white on top, black on the bottom;
earrings on males and certain colors of shoelaces are forbidden. A fat boy in a
yellowed shirt raises a hand at the stairs.

“Hi, Miz Fiz-gerul.”

This boy, in fifth period English, is one who sleeps, nose burrowed into his arm,
until the teacher, Mr. Jannis, raps him with a rolled-up newspaper or the bell rings. I
take in the heavy face, hands loose and lost. His classmates tent their heads with
their arms when I give a demonstration lesson in writing, as if I were sighting them
in cross-hairs desk to desk; and the teacher for whom I am present, disappears into
a file drawer or class attendance book or the SunTimes.

“See you fifth period,” I say. “We’re going to have fun.” I hoist a cassette player.

In this far South Side public high school, I am seen as The Enemy, sent by the
Chicago Board of Ed to spy, then clap people into leg irons. If academic scores
don’t go up this second year of school reform, staff could lose their jobs. There
have been principals’ heads on the parapets of City Hall since June, and teachers
rattling tin cups in the streets.

I am not sent by the Board of Ed. I am as much under scrutiny as anyone, since I
am held responsible for raising test scores by March. I am the EOP (Educational
Outreach Program) of Elliott College, a formerly religious and now non-sectarian
institution on the West Side, and now in a shotgun marriage with Bryant. Less than
fifteen percent of Bryant’s students meet state norms. This fact puts the high
school on academic probation; and the Board requires it to have an educational
partner or be reconstituted (read: Everybody gets fired).

I am white, forty-three, with a Master’s in Writing I got to stay afloat after my
husband died. Now, due to my success with low-scoring freshmen, and Elliott’s
hunger for a piece of City Hall’s School Reform pie, I am a foot soldier in the war
against sixty years of crumbling, dismal, decrepit, and defunct public education in

Up the stairs. Young bodies blind as the blades of a revolving door knock me one
way then another as they tower, elbow, bellow, dog whistle, leap-frog and torrent
past. I notice the starburst of blood now three weeks old on the first landing. Two
more flights. A clutch of kids barnacle the door jamb of Ms. Trevor’s first period
English class. Most will not go in until they absolutely have to. The bell chews along
my nerves. Excuse me, excuse me. I shoulder my way to the threshold.

It’s 8:01 and in one corner of the room I see three limber brothers eye the girls,
snap fingers and croon dirty lyrics; they flash white teeth at the University lady.
Seated near the windows are four sports experts. “Man, Pippin jes’ los’ it, tha’s
awl,” a boy throws himself back in his chair. “No, man,” his friend hikes forward,
cuts a chunk out of the air. “It Jorden, man. He an ol’ man, man. He need give
Scotty some room. Give the man a chance for oncet.” A girl submerged under
corkscrew curls, eye make-up and headphones stares at me from a desk in the
doorless coat closet. No teacher is present. I find a chair.

8:06. I look these embryonic adults over, wonder how they feel going to school in a
failing building (Even the building is failing, yuk, yuk), wonder how they feel seeing
the month-old blood spot on the landing, person-size hunks of plaster torn from
the walls or ceilings, and cockroach trails along the framing boards.

Last week was my first time in this room. That day it took Ms. Trevor, the teacher,
nearly twenty minutes to complete roll. Then I read aloud to the class from the
opening of Black Boy and held two loner students up front. The rest of the class
acted as if I were silent oldies projected onto the chalkboard–and smack dab in the
middle of their personal business to boot. The teacher bawled and threatened, then
gave up trying to improve things and buried her nose in desk drawers and the
supply closet until the bell sounded.  If I were looking for a reform trophy for the
principal, I could tuck Ms. Trevor right under my arm; but I’m the last one
interested in costing anybody her job. I’m just here to try to show teachers new
possibilities, new ways to do things; and my oblique connection with the Board of
Ed is a liability. Today I’m bringing music, every teenager’s basic food. There will be
no wandering attention today.

8:12. The national anthem crackles over the intercom. I stand. These kids don’t;
they raise their voices to overcome the loudspeaker while a beautician applies polish
to her client’s nails, two boys play gin rummy and a girl flips through a video
catalogue. The intercom clicks off. I take my hand from my patriotic heart and sit

8:14. The sports club moves on to baseball. One boy escapes out the door. Two
girls in billowing jackets shuffle in, followed by a kid stuffing his face with popcorn.
Someone blows a dog whistle in the hall as feet pound past and the floor trembles.
“You ahr sub?” a sleepy-eyed girl leaning on a capsizing arm asks. I shake my head
no. “You from the Board?” She can hardly hold her eyes open. “I’m a writing
teacher. I was here last week,” I tell her. She yawns. “Oh,” she sniffs and her arm
and head flop to the desk. I go back to my lesson plan.

8:18. Ms. Trevor, slip hanging a full inch and a half below her dress, bangs a paper
sack against the door frame as she crosses the room, shoes flapping, wig favoring
one ear. In her sixties, Ms. Trevor sets the burden of her textbooks and papers on
the floor by her desk. The singers heighten their falsetto, two catalogue readers
consult and fill out order blanks. Ms. Trevor is of no more moment than the
October breeze through the window. I check the clock, unhitch part three of my
lesson and let it float off into next week.

Bosoms sag under her navy dress with its large purple and green flowers; Ms.
Trevor rights herself, frowns. “There shouldn’t be no talkin’, young people. You-all
know the rules. If I am detained, you are to go over your homework. You-all owe
me your word lists from Monday. This the third day I be askin’ for them.””

“Oh,” one of the singers, a red t-shirt under his white uniform shirt, lifts the
eyebrows of his long face; his hands, delicate as a violinist’s, escape toward the
ceiling. “Oh,” he swivels from one face to another, voice as high as his hands, “Ms.
Trebor say we need be doing our hom-work. Where y’all hom-work at? C’mon now,
git it out, git it out.” He frowns around, moving his arm and hand like a scythe.
“Missus Treevor, she want the hom-wark,” another male, dark hair slickered back,
legs stretched out, Adidas flopped apart, calls. “Geeve up the hom-wark. Missus
Treevor, you can see she ees waitin’”

Boys shrug; girls raise slim shoulders along with their palms and, smiling widely,
shake their heads as if bewildered. Homework? Why would they have homework?
Another student strolls into the room. The clutch of singers picks up the thread of
lyric still suspended in the air. “Do me some mo-re; do me on the flo-or”; their
torsos slip around to the beat.

“All right,” Ms. Trevor straightens her belt and flips open a black spiral book. “I’m
taking names, starting with you, Darren, an’ then you, Victor.”

“Oooo, y’all,” Darren plucks at his red shirt, gives a little scream; “Look out now.
Ms. Trebor takin’ names. You know what that mean—.” He beats time with his feet.
“Mi-ster Jones, Mi-ster Jones.” The class takes it up, pounding on their desks,
tromping on the floor. Mi-ster Jones, Mi-ster Jones.

“Aw right, Darren,” Ms. Trevor bawls; “Aw right class, ah’m gettin’ the guard. Ah’m
calling the guard.” She spanks the floor toward the door, index finger aiming for the
buzzer on the intercom. The ruckus dribbles away.

Sniffing, coughing, shuffling of chairs.

“And she got her hair done today.” Darren’s voice warbles bright and high out of
the constraint of silence. “What kine hair you got, Ms. Trebor? Look like that long
fur offen them monkey arms.”

His boys howl and high-five. The rest of the class whoops, laughter honed for
humiliation, parting the sculptures of their lips, letting the brilliance of their tongues
leap onto the teacher’s desk where she sits with her grade book.

I am appalled. This is an older woman.

“Naw,” another boy wearing an earring some teacher later will tell him to remove
breaks in, slapping his knee, “that a dog I seen runned over front ‘a school
yesteday. Miz Tebor done ripped that fur right offen his back ‘fore he even got colt.”

Ha, ha, ha, they turn on her the jewels of their eyes, glittering with the will to

Laughter in the classroom ricochets off the stained ceiling, rebounds from the
scarred floor. Ms. Trevor seems impervious to the insults. I am assigned to four
teachers at Bryant, and only one so far has had complete control of her classroom.
At my West Side Tuesday school, no teacher black, white, yellow or green has
complete control of the classroom.

“Now y’all stop.” A slender girl with big eyes and marcelled hair throws an arm into
the air; her long red fingernails are like petals of a jungle flower and brilliant against
the dun of the walls. “Y’all gone hurt Miz Trebor’s fillins. An’ here she come today in
her pretty dress from Am-Vets, an nobody say nothin’ nice to her.” She leans
forward in her chair, gold loops gleaming at her ears, a crease down the front of her
jeans, her freshly ironed blouse, its top button undone, glowing against her skin.

“You look real nice today Miz Trebor. Tha’s my fav’rit dress you got on. Ah don’
care how many times you wear it, Ah always be glad to see it.” Around her, the
wave of mockery rises like a wall of water. “An’ yo’ slip look real pretty too.”

She shrieks the last line out doubling over in her chair, then falls sideways into the
arms of the boy next to her; and the wave crashes over the room, filling it up with
the dirty oil-slick of the joke, with the howling voices, boys high-fiving and falling
out, girls sliding onto their tailbones as if they were drunk, weak with the fun of it,
while the partly submerged debris of their lives bobs and collides and submerges

Color climbs the drapery of Ms. Trevor’s jawline. “Put them chairs right,” she points
and barks. “An’ stop that singin’. Tha’s no kine words for young folks to be sayin’.
It got no place in mah classroom. Y’all know mah rules.”

“Oooo. Do me he-re, baby. Don’t you have no fe-ar,” boys and girls turn  the
volume up, lean against one another like barroom buddies.

Ms. Trevor is at my elbow.

“Ah spec’ you can go ‘head wif yo’ lesson.” She waves a hand crumpled by arthritis
toward the chalkboard. “Thiz lady from Elliot College,” she tells the class. “She here
las’ week, those you here. She gon’ teach today.” Mrs. Trevor retreats to her desk.

I feel the shore pull away. I look over at her. I won’t be helping you, her body says.
I’m gone until the bell rings. It’s all yours, University lady.

“Carramba, thees  ees boring,” the girl in the closet pronounces from under her
headphones as I walk to the front of the room  to face the class. Student eyes
already glazed look through me, through the chalkboard, through the wall, across
the corridor, through the opposing classroom’s far wall to the street, across to
some far-off fountain that spouts that magical potion of the future they need to
slake their thirst; and which draws them to itself without mercy.


From my briefcase I take two tapes. Talk volume increases again. Nevertheless, the
cassette player gets looks. I hold up the plug. “I need a technician,” I say. A boy in
front of me—ironed shirt and pants, new gyms—raises his hand.  His friend with a
ring through his eyebrow yells, “Hey, you no tecnico, bobo. You don’t even able to
get yore car door to open.” Easy laughter eddies about the room. I am elated; my
trick has worked and I don’t have to stick my rear into the face of this fractious

“You’ll need paper and pen.” I make light bounce off my voice.

The giant slides onto the end of its spine, buries its head in its arms. “Today you
are going to be music vendors,” I sparkle away. The giant groans as if this were the
sixteenth time this week it has had to be a music vendor. “You’re going to do what
they do in the music business.” I have no idea what goes on in the music business;
but hey, some of what I’m asking them to do must go on sometime in the music
business. “I am going to play two songs. You develop a fact sheet on each; next
week you pick one song to write a sales pitch for, using your fact sheet.”

I surmise Ms. Trevor, into her paper sack, has missed my brilliant ploy of getting
expository and persuasive writing from the same pre-writing activity. Her
inattention is a disappointment though, since this lesson is for her benefit.

“You’ll need to note what instruments you hear, style of song, the story or
meaning in the lyrics, the target audience you envision, and so on.”

The giant stirs onto an elbow, follows the voice vibration, searches until it finds the
middle-aged teacher at the front of the room in her black slacks, out-of-a-bottle
brown hair, crows feet, J. C. Penney earrings, her eyes behind the drug store
glasses too big and too bright, her mouth repeating they’ll need to take notes. The
giant shifts onto the other elbow, pulls a page of crumpled paper from a backpack,
catches an end-over-end ballpoint mid-air.

“What song you gon’ play?” This from the fold of musical young-bloods at the back
of the room.

“You haf sumthin” mi ol’ lady wou’ hate?” ring-through-the-eyebrow rises up and
snaps his fingers like a flamenco dancer. His buddies laugh, snap their fingers too.

“The first is Jim Croce doing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I scan their faces for
recognition of the lyric about their part of Chicago. Nary a ripple. In my West Side
high school, Croce and folk singer Bob Gibson beat out Satchmo and got a
grudging ”moderately cool” from students who felt they could market Croce and
Gibson to swingers in their thirties.

Hearing my selections, these boys release air like tires flattening, lay their heads on
the desks.

“Ain’t you got nothin good we heard of?” It’s the kid who helped me.

In my briefcase I have a two-song promo of the popular young singer Usher. I
glance at Ms. Trevor with her Bible Belt body. The song is heavily sexual. I got the
artist from a sixth grader in my Wednesday school, went to Coconuts, listened to
the tape on the way in. When I heard the repetition of “I’ll f —you right, I will,” I
thought, forget it.  However, the flip side is instrumental.

“Well yes, I do have something else.” I let a swagger into my voice.

“Ah bet it Jingle Bell,” a kid with a shaved head rises out of his seat, soaks up the
laugh. On his lower lip is a purple scar shaped like a wedge of cheese.

“It’s not Jingle Bells. And it’s not the national anthem.” I let my satisfaction glance
off their faces, open for the moment.

The room becomes still.

“What it then?” the shaved head kid frowns and fingers his scar.

I let the pause lay there; let them feel the weight of it; feel for the life stirring in it.
“Usher,” I say, finally, and rake in the looks of disbelief, of reappraisal.

Darren leans back until his chair is on two legs, shakes his head, jabs his thumbs
toward the floor. “Naw man, she ain’t got no Usher .”

I feel a surge of power, fish for the cassette, hold it up. On the front is a handsome
bare-chested young man with glistening hair pulled into a pony-tail, arms crossed
over bulging muscles and intense eyes looking out from the plastic box.

“Lemme see.” The boy who helped me unfolds his body.

He comes on too fast. Instinctively I hide the tape behind my back, then feel guilty,
argue with myself that I am too suspicious. “Jeremy,” his dangling student i.d. says,
is the boy who helped me out with the plug just a moment ago.

I hesitate, hand him the tape.

His eyes buck, eat the name, the image; his mouth gapes. He holds it high, rattles
the case.

“She got Usher sho’ enuf,” he tells his friends who begin jumping for it. Lemme see
it man. Gib it ober, Jer’me. Gib it here.

My stomach drops. What if he doesn’t give it back, goes off with that sexual
material to the sea of headphones in the lunchroom, tells everyone he got it from
that teacher lady from the university?

“Give me the tape, Jeremy.” I hold out my hand.

Jeremy stands like the Statue of Liberty, the cassette high over his head, his
suddenly invigorated friends, the turbulent waters.

“Give me the tape,” I repeat the command, keep my voice even, though my heart is
pounding—walking the high wire without a net. I’ve met Jeremys before, white,
black, brown—all will, nothing but will, the lords of the land.

Jeremy waggles the tape at my nose. “Play this one.”

There are shouts of agreement, and a funny shift in the room that says they, the
students, are possibly remotely prepared to consider something akin to perhaps
even liking the University lady, especially if she gives them music the school and
their parents don’t approve of. But they are also a pot on a high flame, the excited
water jumping at the rim.

“First we’ll hear Jim Croce. Then we’ll hear Bob Gibson. Then we’ll hear Usher.” I
make my voice firm, step toward Jeremy.

He ducks the tape behind his back. “How we know you gon’ play it?”

“Because I said so. If we start now, we’ll have time to hear it before the bell rings; if
we waste any more time, it’ll be too late and you’ll have to wait until next week.” It
is a masterstroke. Jeremy surrenders the tape.

I press the play button. Silence, hissing; then the stepping up, stepping down of
the piano banging out the intro to “Leroy Brown. ” There are grimaces, blinking
eyes, hands over ears. Someone waves in a circle: Turn it down.

I am stunned, dumbfounded. Who can’t like Croce doing their Chicago, speaking
their lingo? I think back to Usher playing in my car, and realize I was hearing
Motown reborn—soft, mellow, and now explicitly sexual. That’s what they’re hungry
for, not the jumping jack songs of the sixties. How could I have been so stupid?

Then, as if she ascended out of the floor, Ms. Trevor is there, dancing a slow dance
in front of the cassette player. Donna Reed hair cocked to one side, a shy smile on
her lips, arms pumping to the beat, her slip sways below her dress. In old-lady
steps, she turns, raises her arms over her head. Tiny grey hairs sprout under her
capped sleeves. Ms. Trevor steps to a melody of tenderness, of the past; she
dances on a dance floor we cannot see to music we cannot hear.

Her students gape, roll their eyes, but hesitate, confused by this shocking unasked
for display of her humanity. They read it as a betrayal and subversion of the
unspoken game of school: They are to hate and torment Ms. Trevor until June to
show their contempt for anything that is not their own; she is to berate and
unjustly police them Fall to Summer and so crystallize their self-righteousness and
will to resist.

“Mama mia!” the boy with slickered hair sets down his People Magazine.

“Git up an’ dance wid her,” Jeremy elbows his buddy.

“Aw, man, she too fas’ fer som-body my age.”

I am aghast, humbled, thinking perhaps Ms. Trevor has done this for me, to
support my lesson. Now I have a visceral need to throw my body between Ms.
Trevor and her class while Croce pounds on.

“Mm-muh! Now thas’ sexy. Ain’t tha’ sexy?” Darren asks around, shaking his
fingers hard and fast and eyeing Ms. Trevor’s age-flattened hips under her skirt.
“Wou’nt y’all call that hot?”

But the class lets it go. Ms. Trevor, eyes still half-closed, soft smile still on her lips,
completes a circle and sways back to her desk.

“Take notes. What instruments do you hear? What story?” I’m in there without
missing a beat.

The giant blinks, jots a word, a line. A few shoulders roll, a few fingers pop. The
room quiets. Glee uncurls in my solar plexus. By God, I’ve got them. I stroll,
smiling, peering over shoulders, feeling smug and powerful.

The weak light of a Chicago overcast struggles through the grime on the windows.
Gum wrappers, cellophane bags, balls of crumpled loose-leaf sit on the floor like
modern art. There is the clank and rattle of the dumpster outside, the buzz of the
overheads, the scratch and tap and of pens and pencils, the melody breaking off as
if cut with a scissors.

I whirl to see a wide grin floating near the cassette player as a life-sized puppet on
a stick, a striped shirt under a white shirt, leaps away from the player, then dances
toward it with his male cronies around him, their leader, Jeremy, their grins breaking
like light on water. As if in a dream where details glance off your mind, I see the odd
thing in his eyes, the discrepancies among the grin, the dancing movement, and the
wary way he looks at me, one hand high over his head like a dancer, the other
down, partly concealed by his body. I see him bring the second hand up from
behind his thigh, and with a movement fluid and flame-like, punch the door open,
pull Croce from the player and drop in a different cassette. The little door shuts
with a snap and Jeremy’s index finger punches downward to release sounds of
metal against metal, like trains on the loose. Jeremy dances away, long legs
bending, head thrown back, eyes glittering as if waiting for a burst of something.
Then the singer—if you could call him a singer—breaks through the music—if you
could call it music—shouting the one word you never use in a classroom.

The ‘f’ word.

Over and over, the performer bellows it through the saucer-sized sound system of
the player, pumps it into the classroom like sewage under pressure.

The kids go on a rampage, yelling and clapping, high-fiving and knocking chairs
over. Like a wild sea they rise and fall, slapping into one another, hilarious, shouting
the word, letting it knock them around, weak with the joy of it. All the Sunday
afternoons in church; all the yammer, yammer, yammer of adults to which they
have not responded so they wouldn’t get hit; all the furious, frustrated wordless
waiting for time, for nature, for God to make something good happen to them—
they let it all into that one word, jettison it for the pure ecstasy of the release, the
beautiful word bringing down all those barriers the grown-ups at home, in school, in
churches, in stores, on the street, on television raise against them.

All I can think is where did he get a tape, and how did he drop it in so fast? And
that I am responsible. I left the player unguarded, trusting them without a thought,
rube that I  am, easy mark, aging fool of a flower child who assumed there was a
verbal contract. I stride past the riot of open mouths to the player, eject the tape
and drop it into my pocket; then I raise my chin and give Jeremy my most
triumphant look, though I am walking humiliation.

The students’ relish of my discomfort is deep. I feel their wavering— whether or not
to make something more out of this with this here University lady come in our
classroom readin’ her books, stick her nose in our business, tell us we stupid. She
stupid. What she think she gon’ do now, she so smart? I hear their minds go at it
like knives mincing chives.

Jeremy teeters at his place, the corners of his mouth high, as if pulled by a cord.
The smile has no depth. He bounces on the balls of his feet; the long fuzz on his
head looks as if it is breathing. Jeremy loves the spotlight.

“Guess I got yo’ tape now.” He twirls it between his long fingers. His boys laugh.

I turn from him, force myself into a slow swagger, back and forth in front of the
chalkboard.  A standoff with a student is death; you never do it.

“I’ve got your tape.” I pat the pocket of my jacket.

Jeremy shrugs. “S’ fine with me. Ah’ll keep this one uh yours, tho’ Ah cain’t git
nuthin’ fer it on the street.”

His boys laugh. His girls glitter.

“Good,” I nod deeply. “Then I’ll have yours. Good.” Back and forth.

He shrugs again.

I feel sweat in my armpits.

Jeremy folds himself back into his seat, tucking my tape into his shirtfront pocket,
whistling off tune. Tittering sloshes around the room.  Outside, someone leans on a
car horn.

I see Ms.Trevor push herself up from her desk, her mouth opening.

“You give that tape back to Miz Fizroy, Jeremey.”

“Who Miz Fizroy?” a baby-faced boy yells and snaps his head to look around the

“Who Miz Fizroy?” he asks his classmates.

“She Miz Fizroy,” the kid next to him grins broadly and points at me; “only she Miz

“Haw, haw,” the girl in the coat closet calls out through her chewing gum; “Miz
Trebor don’ even know tha’ woman name. And she our teacher.”

“Tha’ woman not our teacher,” a girl with blue-black hair straight as rain drawls,
picking at her cuticle with a nail that curves downward and is painted green. “Miz
Trebor our teacher, only she don’ know nothin’.”

For a moment I don’t care that the students, from all I’ve seen last week and
today, are justified in their war with Ms. Trevor. I don’t care that if Ms. Trevor takes
over, the class will be excruciating in its dullness, its beside-the-pointness, small to
a fault. I don’t care that these students will have nervous systems jumping out of
their skins as they watch the hands of the clock crawl from minute to minute until
all fifty have eaten them alive. What I hope is that right now Ms. Trevor will stand all
the way up and take back the class. But Ms. Trevor sits down instead and my hope
flaps away, leaving me alone with this live bomb. I cast my eyes at the clock; there’s
still fifteen minutes to go.

“Of course,” I say, all casualness, “we could make a trade, if you promise not to play
that tape in here.”

But Jeremy’s not having any. ” He stands rooted, his back to me; I stroll, study the
bulletin board. The class loves it.

“Geeve at the same time,” a boy with unraveling cuffs and an infant mustache offers
from over a dog-eared comic book; “like in the moovies.”

Jeremy looks over his shoulder at me.  He wants his ‘f’s back.

“Get your tape up, Jeremy,” I tell him and move forward. Jeremy turns. I hold out
the tape. You can hear a pin drop.

We are within two feet of one another. If he should manage to get his tape and not
give mine back, I will be Her Majesty Queen Fool. I feel all the eyes,  but I keep mine
on Jeremy’s fingers, hold my tape level. Jeremy does the same. My face aches; I
realize it’s my smile, wonder if it looks like the letter slot in Jeremy’s face. Jeremy’s
fingers come, come. I shunt the box forward. His fingertips dock on its end; I feel
the coolness of Croce under my own fingers. Then each of us releases the other’s,
turns away, and the tension in the room evaporates. Jeremy pimp-walks to his
chair, pants fashionably low, the crotch nearly to his knees. Students shift, turn to
one another.

“Wha’ she gon’ do now?” a boy asks.

Never say die. I drop Croce into the cassette player.

Oh, the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of—

“Ask yourself what instruments you hear. Take notes. You’re going to need them.”

I coach, the giant scratches on its paper, or scratches under its arm or picks its
nose, or lays its head down on the desktop. The bass thumps up and down, the
piano rattles along like a tray full of china, Croce croons out the words sweet and
tart and chunky. I relax a bit, stroll, bend over a squatty girl in a Sox sweatshirt,
look down the list of instruments she has going and absently notice dead air. Dead
air. I spin around. The sound of metal clashing; the sound of the word you never
use in school and Jeremy’s grin floats above the player.

The room is up for grabs.

A tidal wall of anger slams against my eyeballs. I feel massive pressure on my vocal
cords. My tongue swells with inarticulate speech, swear words, obscenities,
profanity, racial slurs. I clamp my jaws, my body begins to shake. Before I can
reach the player, Jeremy punches the stop/eject, drops the tape into his pants
pocket, careens on his heel, plops like a straw man into his chair. The laughter is an
open hydrant. They point at the University lady. Who stupid now? Ha, ha. Who
stupid now?

All I can feel is rage, and how much I hate these teenagers.

I jerk the plug from the wall, the machinery of my mind smoking as if it’s caught on
a rag.  From far far away I hear Ms. Trevor’s voice, like a radio playing in another
room: Now young people; now young people.

I collect the player and, as if watching from outside, see myself march to the front
of the room, draw my body into a shaking column and then, past recall, ripple my
lip and hurl at the blur of adolescent faces and open mouths the venom pumping
through my nervous system.

“I came ready to work,” I spit flaming match heads. “I put three hours into this
lesson and spent my own money, but I guess you’re not interested.”

“You got that one right, sister,” someone calls out.

“I was trying to prepare you for the IGAP. Maybe you don’t care if your school goes
down the tubes.”

“Yes.” Darren, red shirt blazing, raises the power sign. “Bryant, down the tubes.”
Everyone whoops and claps.

“That’s fine. That’s your business,” I fume away. “But if this school goes down, you
go down with it. People who don’t know you will look at your scores. If they’re low,
where else can they put you but in the class for kids who seem slow? The slow
class gets the worn-out teachers, the rooms in the basement, the textbooks from
1972. If you apply to college and they see the name of your high school, someone’s
going to remember: “Oh, Bryant. On probation three times, then reconstituted.
Deep six this kid.”

Under the stained and peeling ceiling, the students listen, lean back on their elbows
or forward on the palms of their hands as if sunning at the beach, like children of
the rich who, when they are ready, will go to their grandfathers or uncles for the
sports car, then the really good job—one not too demanding and with their own
office in a skyscraper in the Loop. The job will pay lots of money for the designer
clothes, pricey condos, sexy partners and European vacations they will require. Until
that day, they have nothing better to do than watch this University lady whip
herself into a high froth over something that doesn’t have a thing in the world to
do with them.

“We’re trying to help you here,” I splutter on, “and you don’t have sense enough to
know it.”

They stare at me, wide-eyed and placid. Then someone snickers and my rage
erupts afresh.

“You know,” I inject enough fresh acid into my voice to eat holes in their ears,
“when you get out there, a pretty face and good-looking clothes aren’t going to be
enough. You’ll have to be able to do something.”

My words slide harmless as baby oil over their grinning faces.

I jam the cassette player into my briefcase. Where does their arrogance come from
anyway, I blister. These kids have nothing. What on earth is it they find to act so
high and mighty about?

The buzzer shreds the air.  Students clatter out of their chairs and swell toward the
door. I have no reluctance about stepping aside to let them pass.

It is zipping my briefcase the bolt of lightening strikes and I realize the fiction, the
hallucination this whole thing of schooling is: That it is a dream we teachers dream
and that we think it is real because we don’t know we’re dreaming; whereas what is
real is that we are the past and the poor. They–these students who sun on the
beach waiting to collect their inheritance—are the future; they are the rich. We don’t
know this. We know only our dream we live and that ends for us only when we do.

These students experience our dream as a play they are forced watch and find
interminable as they sit in the front row and drum their fingers and wait for us to
finish our lines. They fantasize instead the play they will be in and rehearse lines
they know they will have. They will never enter our play because they are
commanded to an entirely new play. Already, in their bodies and minds, ideas light
up, exert a pull, create a current; and their dream germinates among them and
they do not know it. This is nature. They know only that our story is foolish and
makes no sense.

This new awareness grips and holds me the way the alarm clock buzzer arrests
consciousness between waking and sleeping. Of course they would not listen or
hear. Why would I think I could bring anything of interest to those cast in a
different play with a script written in a different language, to actors trying out their
lines and waiting for me, for all of us to get off the stage?

White shirts and black pants jostle past me toward the door. I breathe in the
scents of hair dressing, nail polish, chewing gun, perspiration. I must serve these
actors. We all must serve them, whether we want to or not.  It is the law of nature
encoded in us and in them–in the growing of their bodies, in the galvanizing
without their consent that feels so totally right and happens as nature forges a new

Jeremy’s head floats into my peripheral vision. “You have to have more than a
pretty face,” he advises his audience in a high falsetto, wagging his head like a
woman. “You have to be able to doooo something.” He passes in front of me as if I
weren’t there. I feel the mercy of whatever has already washed me out of his mind.
“Doooo some-ting, mi insectos!” another voice bobs up. “Doooo something, mi
insectos!” the students chant, punching out the door, nearly blind to the next
classroom. It’s all the same to them, ever pressing up from the soil as they are.

I turn to escape down the hall; but there Ms. Trevor is, haunting my elbow, carrying
her purse and paper sack. “My daddy wouldn’t never ‘low such low manners in our
house,” she says, shakes her head and turns on me a face like the earth abused.
“My daddy beat me every day of my life,” she tells me factually, the way a child tells
a child, looking out at me from the punishing room of the crazed righteousness of
parental law. I don’t know how to reply, shocked at this unexpected intimacy, and
touched by it. “He beat me every day of my life,” Ms. Trevor repeats with pride and
bitterness until we reach the stairs.

I swim the babble of the student cafeteria; feel soft drink cups, paper French fry
baskets and sandwich papers crunch underfoot. I find the teachers’ lunchroom
where I stare at the TV with its Wall Street ticker tape stuttering along the bottom
of the screen. My French fries resemble beached marine life. I have no appetite
anyway. Through the lunchroom’s closed door I hear the giant winnowing fan of
adolescence. Two more classes wait for me.

At 2:35 p.m. I head for the haven of my car.

When I get home, I will call my chairman and tell him I cannot go back to that class;
that he can fire me if he wants to.

He will say, “Why? What happened?”

I will tell the story.

He will say, “You’re exaggerating, Isa. You’re making too much of this. They won’t
even remember next week.”

I will tell him he’s wrong, that I have lost all credibility in that classroom.

“All you need is a good night’s sleep. Besides, it will look worse if you don’t go
back. Then they really will have beaten you.”

I will not tell him they have already beaten all of us, or that it is an illusion to think
there is anything to beat.

I’ll hear him open and close a desk drawer. Then I’ll hear him clear his throat and
ask in a low careful voice, “Is it a thing with minorities?”

I will scrutinize myself while his chair squeaks. Finally, I will say no, not more than
for anyone else, and probably less than with many. I will not add that this is bigger
and deeper than anything to do with race, that it has to do with something like
what Buddhists call the Turning of the Wheel.

There will be the relieved pause. “Then no problem going back,” his voice will boom
across the line.

I will not say there is every problem with going back because nobody sees the
Wheel or knows we are all caught on its spokes. Instead I’ll tell him I honestly don’t
know what to offer these students; that whatever it is they need, I don’t have it,
and that how to find it is a mystery to me. I’ll tell him I’m not sure I ever was a
teacher, anyway—just a would-be fiction writer trying to earn a living.

“There you go writing short stories again,” he’ll come back. “You’ve done a great
job here at Elliott College, and you can do a great job there. Aren’t you the one
always telling me how smart those kids are and how much promise they have? Have
you decided they don’t have promise?”

No, I’ll say.

“—that they aren’t smart?”

No. They’re smart, very smart.

I will not tell him I have sensed that mysterious authority that brims at the rim of
their young skin, sensed it for the last year in every classroom past fifth grade and
now recognize it for their dream forming of its own accord in and among them; and
that in rooms with a weak teacher, this authority of theirs breaks over the top with
no provocation other than the joy of its own will.  John Murray will circulate with his
index finger the number two pencils in his Michigan State beer mug, then straighten
the backbone in his voice. “Oh, roll up your sleeves, Isa. You’re topnotch. Tell them
what to do, see that they do it and get those scores up.”

I will run my fingertips over my cat’s ear, feel the exquisite curve of the tip, trace
with my eye its embroidery thread veins in the lighted tortoise shell and hear myself
saying “um-hum” and “I guess so” as John Murray’s voice keeps unrolling like the
evening news. I will agree we are legally bound to fulfill this contract, and that next
time the lesson should be simpler, something out of their textbooks. I won’t bother
to add almost nobody has textbooks, or they never bring them or have only dog-
eared ancient editions. I won’t bother to say that this class will stare at me over
empty desks or Sears catalogs or the sports page of the SunTimes, laugh and
chatter, shrug, mimic my voice and facial expression; and that every class I go to
waits for this same opportunity.

I won’t tell him the situation is hopeless unless someone wakes up to the reality
that students and teachers are in different dreams. I will not point out that
adolescents cannot be expected to understand this.  Neither will I ask where we will
find a teacher who grasps that there are two dreams running like separate rivers in
the same classroom and that the students’ dream, blind and just forming, must be
midwifed into a world that will leave that teacher behind.

I’ll agree to go back, to try it again—because I need the job and want to continue at
Elliott. I can’t explain that nothing is the same, that I am not the same person, that
now I know too much and too little to do this work. One thing will change though.
Hereafter, I will understand the teachers I work with; and I will not sneer at them



Zoe Keithley‘s stories have appeared in the North American Review, American Fiction, F3, Emergence, Pigeon, Dogwood and other journals. Her fiction has won a fellowship in Prose from the Illinois Arts Council and finalist awards from Zoetrope, American Fiction,
Dogwood, Emergence
and Hyphen. A novel and short story collection are circulating. She
lives in Sacramento and is at work on a second novel, teaches private writing students locally and at a distance, and is learning to play and compose music on the banjo.


“California Redemption Value” by Cathy Warner


The kid was in his face, a little guy with blue eyes and a dinosaur T-shirt. “Hey, Mr. Guy, are you a pirate?”

Bo shook his head no, but the kid didn’t notice.

“’You look like a pirate. I saw Peter Pan and the bad pirate has a gone eye like you. And there were lots of pirates with arms all marked up like you. Gammy gets mad when I draw on my arms and scrubs me too hard.”

Bo slid the box of Trojans back on the bottom shelf, his chance to pocket them gone.  It was a small town drugstore. Someone would be looking for the kid soon. He stood up and the kid gaped at his fringed leather chaps.

“Oh, you’re a cowboy! I got pants like that on my birthday. But I don’t have a gun. Gammy said No guns. Guns are bad. Guns kill people. Don’t kill people, okay?”

“Sure, kid,” Bo walked away. It was a little too late for that.

He was low on money and had been sleeping his way down from Alaska.  He could usually find a woman who’d take him home.  But, the last week he’d slept outside, hidden in burned out redwoods along 101.

Bo sat on his Harley and surveyed Main Street of this Northern California nowhere. Lucky Seven Saloon, Dale’s Market, Emma’s Beauty Emporium, Videos To Go, and Ace Hardware. Redwood Creek Drugs was the only place to buy rubbers.

Out walked the kid with a brown haired woman in her forties. “Look, Gammy, that’s my friend. He’s not a pirate.” The kid waved. “Hi, Mr. Cowboy Guy!”

Bo nodded. The boy’s grandmother pulled him closer and hurried away. Bo watched them round the corner.

Bo ducked back inside, pocketed the condoms in his jacket and bought travel sized Scope.  He could make it home in three days.  Then what?  He didn’t know.

The Lucky Seven was just like every other small town bar.  Decaying vinyl bar stools, worn wooden floor, a slew of bottles in front of a mirror to make everything look like more.  Bo ordered a beer.  He didn’t get crazy drunk anymore, he watched himself.  Kept control.

He’d been nursing the beer for over an hour when she walked in. About twenty-five, all hair and makeup and tits struggling to stay in her tube top.

“Hey, Gus,” she greeted the bartender.

“Well, Sister Mary Margaret.  Glory be!” he answered.

“Give it a rest.”  She sat next to Bo. “I’m Mag– Mary Margaret to my friend here from Saint Agnes Elementary.” She smiled and held out her hand. Bo shook it. “You’ve gotta be new in town. I know every guy here.”

“Just passing through.”

“On your way to where?”

Bo shrugged.

“What’ll it be, Mag?” Gus asked.

“Two of whatever my friend here is having.”

Gus uncapped two Coors.  Mag slipped him a five and slid a beer to Bo. “I’m feeling generous today.”

“Thanks,” Bo answered.  He kept quiet, trying to gauge his chances with her.

“Not much of a talker, huh?  Well that’s okay.  I’ve got plenty to say, people can’t shut me up, and believe me they try.

Let’s see.” She stopped and appraised Bo. “Bull dog tattoo. Animal Lover?  I could tell you about my twenty-three cats and how my tight-ass neighbor called out the pet cop. Excuse me I mean ‘Animal Protection Officer Farrell.’ Interested?”


“You should be ‘cuz it seems Officer Farrell is allergic to cats.  He was sneezing and coughing, and then his windpipe closed up or something.  He was pointing and waving, jumped back in his truck.  Didn’t even get a ticket.”  She paused.

“You allergic to cats?”

“No.”  God she did talk too much.

She ran a finger up his tattooed arm, poked one.  “Carla, huh?  She still in the picture?”


“Drag, having to see her name every day.”

“Guess so.”

“What’s your name?”


“So, Bo,” she sipped the Coors and laughed. “Where you from?”

“Nowhere right now.”

“Bullshit. Everybody’s from somewhere, and if they’re not, they’re running away from somewhere or someone. And if they run too fast, they just go slammin’ into shit even worse than they’re trying to get away from.”

“Believe me, I know about shit.”

Bo looked at her. Underneath the makeup, her eyes were tired. Her puffy hair was bleached and dark at the roots. She had tight little lines around her lips.

“I bet you do.” Bo drained his beer and stood up. “Know someplace where I could camp out?”

“I suppose you can stay in my shed.” Mag cleared her throat. “If you don’t see me tomorrow morning Gus, be worried.”

Bo followed her truck, and heard the rolling of empty bottles every time she turned a corner. It was too easy, he thought. She must have a leaky roof, an asshole boyfriend who was running around on her, something that she needed him to fix.

She drove slow and he maneuvered the Harley around the cloud of dust and potholes. She turned off the dirt road and pulled up beside a small cabin with peeling green paint.

“Hey, Bo. Gimme a hand with the bottles will ya?”

She flipped down the tailgate. “I recycle. Make okay money that way too. See the bins over there.  We need to sort clear and colored.”

Bo picked up an empty bottle and threw it across the yard. It landed in front of the bin and shattered. “C’mon now,” Mag said. “There goes a dime. I can’t redeem it if it’s totally smashed. I can’t save that one.”

“Sorry,” Bo answered. He grabbed a handful of bottles and carried them to the recycling bins. A corrugated tin shed sat behind them.

She fixed him dinner and did his laundry while he took a shower, then a bath. He sunk into the water. God he was tired and everything ached. He was tired of drifting. And the drifting kept bringing him closer to home, as if he was stuck in a current and too weak to fight it anymore.

Mag rapped on the door, came in and stuck a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt on the toilet.  “Probably too big, but your stuff’s drying by the stove.”  She kneeled by the tub and handed Bo a cup of coffee.

“Sit up and I’ll scrub your back.”

Bo leaned forward, “God that feels good.”

“I know.”

He let her wash his back. She massaged his shoulders, neck and back. “Man are you ever tight.  Neck like iron bars. You hold way too much in.”

About now, he thought, would be a good time to have sex. Pull her into the tub, finish his end of the bargain. But then she pushed him back and cupping her hands, poured water over his hair. She started to pull off the eye patch when he put a hand on hers. He looked at Mag. Her blonde hair was in a ponytail, makeup washed off, and she wore an apron––Goofy with blue checks––over her tube top and jeans.

“Don’t,” Bo said. It was too intimate, too personal.

“Trust me, I’m in beauty college.” She set the patch on the pile of clothes. She poured some Vidal Sassoon on her palm then rubbed it into his hair, scrubbing hard. “A good shampoo increases circulation to the scalp, releases those natural hair oils. Plus, it feels like a million bucks.”

She hummed something he didn’t recognize while she washed his face with peach exfoliating gel, and gently circled the scarred eye socket. The soapy smell of her hands reminded him of his mother, holding his young face between her dishwater damp hands and admonishing, “Be good,” before he left for school.

Mag opened the drain, turned on the hot water and rinsed his hair and face.  “I’ll let you finish up.”

He took a long time getting dressed. The clothes were too big, but comfortable. Mag waited at the kitchen table set with two bowls of soup, hunks of bread and plastic tumblers of tap water. Five cats curled at her feet.

“You want me to chop some wood, fix a leak or something?” Bo asked.

“Nah,” she brushed away the thought and pulled out a chair for him. “If it helps, think of yourself as a stray cat I picked up. I give you a bowl of milk, some food, brush out the burrs and the fleas. And you wander off in the morning. That’s just how it works.”

Mag talked all through dinner, and Bo felt himself relaxing. They washed dishes together and he told her a few stories. Safe stories about working in a salmon cannery on Kodiak Island. She laughed at the one about the bear who caught him taking a dump in the woods.

She made more coffee and they sat at the table.  “You want to know about the shit?  You look like a guy who needs to get over the shit?”

“Some things you just can’t get over.”

“Why not?”

“Cause some things aren’t,” he tried to find the right word, “forgivable.”

“You’ve done the unforgivable?”


“Well, me too. And I know you’re just not a talker. So, I tell you my shit, and it makes you think about yours right, and how maybe you’re not so terrible, after all. Alright?”

Bo nodded.

“So, I had seven abortions by the time I was eighteen. Seven. Mary Margaret Delaney, pregnant at thirteen, and on and on. No excuse, I was just stupid. Forget the Catholic part. You can always find someone to do the job. But, you won’t believe how much money I had to get. Every time. Made the boys pay a lot of it, too. But, then, you get used to doing things for money. Got a reputation. Finally got some rubbers too. But, anyway, last time, number eight, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was twenty. Still stupid, but I had some idea, buried inside about what I did. So, I had the baby. A little boy. It was supposed to make me grow up, you know, having the baby. But you know what I saw when I held him? I saw all those babies I killed.  Screaming crying babies, and I was drowning them, like kittens, holding them by the neck and shoving them under water until they stopped kicking.”

Mag paused, looked at Bo, and took a big swallow of coffee.  Bo felt numb, like just a corner of his brain was in the room.  He’d been buzzed every night for months, and tonight he felt unreal, like he was watching a movie of himself.

“That’s pretty unforgivable, don’t you think? But it gets worse. I left my baby with my mom. Took off a few weeks after he was born, didn’t leave a note, just walked out the door. I couldn’t stand the sight of him. I did shit for two years.  Two fucked up years.  Then I woke up behind a dumpster one day, and I thought ‘This sucks. I’ve got a baby. Someone to love me, someone I should be taking care of.’  So, I came home. But when I got there, I just hung around outside my mom’s house in the bushes for two days, wanting to see my son and too scared to. The third day, Mom spotted me on her way to the mailbox. ‘Mary, Margaret.  Mary Margaret,’ she couldn’t stop saying my name. She was crying and I was crying and we just stood there in this hug that lasted forever, and then there was this little voice saying ‘Uppy, uppy.’ Mom picked up my baby, I’d never even named him, you know, and said, ‘Seamus, this is your mommy.’”

Mag stopped to add wood to the stove.  Bo held the coffee cup in his hands, trying to ward off the chill that was coming in through the windows.  He got up and stood by the wood stove.  Mag closed the curtains and stood next to Bo, poking the fire.

“This isn’t a fairy tale. Nobody lives happily every after. Mom said she forgave me for running off, and for all the abortions. She said she didn’t do it for me. She said she did it partly because she knew God already had. Mostly, she did it for her. She forgave me because she didn’t want to turn into a bitter old lady. But, she didn’t give Seamus back. She sued for custody. I’ve got supervised visitation, every other weekend.”

She smiled and the tired lines around her mouth and eyes grew darker in the fire’s shadow. “I’m a shitty mom. But I’m learning to love Seamus. I’m trying to be a person he deserves. And I did one thing. I forgave myself, even though I don’t deserve it, I’ll never deserve it. But I don’t want to be a bitter old lady either.”

Bo curled up in the hollow of Mag’s shoulder on the sofa bed. She stroked his hair in the warm room. He held on to her like a young boy holds a teddy bear. “It was my brother,” Bo said. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”

“I know,” Mag answered in a hushed tone. She kept stroking Bo’s hair. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

At the moment, it seemed possible.

She woke up when he got out of bed. Bo hadn’t counted on that. He wanted to sneak away without seeing her. He’d told her too much last night. And he’d let her in. He didn’t do that. She had been too kind to him. He didn’t deserve it. Now he had to go.

“So, you’re a leave in the morning cat?”


“It’s okay. I’m not expecting anything.”

Mag stirred the embers of the fire and added more wood. She pulled on her robe. “Do you want breakfast before you go?”

“No, thanks,” Bo answered.

She handed him his clothes and headed to the bathroom. When she came back he was just pulling on his boots.

“Take care of yourself,” she said.

“Thanks.”  Bo nodded and left the cabin.

He walked to his Harley. There was a bottle, broken at the neck that had rolled out of the truck, under his tire. Bo picked it up, ready to throw it across the yard.

“Don’t do that! Mommy saves ’em. She says they got deption value, if you don’t break em.”

Bo turned toward the small voice. It was the kid from yesterday. “What?” he asked.

“You know. If it’s not all smashed up, you save it. Then you go to this place and the man gives you a dollar or five cents. But if it’s broke you just got to throw it away. Mommy said the broke stuff is sharp and cuts. Cuts hurt. I don’t like cuts. So I can’t save the broke stuff.”

“Seamus, where are you?” It was the kid’s Grandma calling from a Pontiac at the edge of the driveway.

“Coming Gammy!” Seamus shouted. Then he turned back to Bo. “I’m visiting Mommy today.” He looked at the bottle, “You could save it. Right, Mr. Cowboy Guy?”

Bo looked at the broken bottle. Written on the side of the label was California Redemption Value.

“I don’t know, kid,” he answered. Bo started his bike and rode away, broken bottle in his pocket.



Cathy Warner serves as lay pastor of a United Methodist Church in Northern California. She writes poetry, short fiction, and faith columns for her local paper.