Ralph James Savarese, a professor of English, pens a poem about the push for in-person teaching on campuses this fall.

July 16, 2020

It’s as if it were the early '90s again.
Instead of safe sex, safe teaching.
Instead of condoms, masks and shields.
We look like welders in the latter --
the sparks of learning never quite reach us.


Everything intimate has been curtailed:
even the birds must use bullhorns to sing.
We’re like astronauts with giant, inflexible
gloves who cannot turn a simple screw
and for whom space, that watch-work


of stellar confetti, is simply an abstraction --
beyond the helmet or on a screen.
My college calls it “in-person” instruction.
How about “after-person” instruction
or even “under-person” instruction? 


As in: The professor lay beneath a pile of plastic,
the earthquake having not quite killed him.

Soon we’ll all have our own pope mobiles
to scooter around the classroom, as if
retired and putzing or putting…. 


“Hey, golfer, what’s your handicap?”
Mine’s a problem of fending off infection.
So now I must out myself as unwell.
(A colleague whispers, "Insufficiently devoted.")
The big ask, as the development people 


like to say, is upon us with a tank tread.
Every institution, whatever its rhetoric:
inebriate of air and dollars. It, too, yells,
half-cynically, “I CAN’T BREATHE.”
When the specialist first prescribed 


immunosuppressants, he explained them
to me like this: “You’re sending troops out
onto the streets of your body to quell
a rebellion. You’re the president or king.”
The guy was clearly showing off --


he saw on my chart that I teach literature.
“I’m not Trump!” I want to scream, but I am.
These drugs, in the language of spies, leave
me compromised. So does this teaching.
So does this wrinkled, white skin.

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Ralph James Savarese is a professor of English at Grinnell College. He is the author of See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (Duke University Press) and a book of poetry, Republican Fathers, to be published in October by Nine Mile Press.


Ralph James Savarese

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