Last Class

They come to school early.
Morning coffee, jibes, and jokes,
out of cars they drive in the dark from Vallejo,
and Monte Rio, where the river flooded.
Slipping out of county safe houses, the bus
from Cloverdale, or out of cars they live in.

Out of wanting to get ahead,
out of time, no longer content to be behind,
out of start over and finish this time,
out of I want to be like you.

Half of my last class stays late.
Questions about the lecture, their futures, musty
pasts, today’s test. Was it good enough?

This class knows how to listen, willing to learn
a different way from before, to stretch from the beginning
and see it through to the end.
They take another assignment and do it.
They all finish first.

My students weave their term stories of disabled people
with their own lives. More than half tell tales of those who win.
The rest are tortured, shot, commit suicide. Culturally normal
for disability in the 17th or 18th centuries.

Tears slip down my cheeks as we reach the last minutes
of the last day, as students stand in line, in a single
file, hold my hands in both of theirs.

They shake my hand the way we practiced in class,
hand me homemade cards or store-bought ones they hardly can
afford, will you write me a reference?
a packet of morning glories, a book of poetry,
how will I be able to reach you?
lotions for my winter skin, gift cards for My Teacher.

About the Author

Donna Emerson writes poetry and prose. She recently retired from college teaching and her practice as a licensed clinical social worker.

Some of her publications include Alembic, CQ (California Quarterly), CALYX, The Chaffin, Courtship of Winds, Denver Quarterly, Dos Passos Review, Eclipse, Edison Literary Review, Fourth River, Fox Cry Review, The Griffin, The Los Angeles Review, LUX, Naugatuck River Review, New Ohio Review, Paterson Literary Review, The Paragon Journal, Passager, Persimmon Tree, Praxis: Gender & Cultural Critiques (formerly Phoebe), Quiddity, Sanskrit, Slipstream, Soundings East, So To Speak, The South Carolina Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Spillway, Spry, Stone Canoe, Tower Journal, and Weber—The Contemporary West.

Her work has received numerous prizes and awards including being selected as a finalist in the 2016 Trio House First-Book Awards and the 24th Annual Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction and Essay Contest, Editor’s Choice in the 2017 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and honorable mention in the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, nominations for the Pushcart Prize (2013), and Best of the Net (2012). Her second chapbook, Body Rhymes (2009), nominated for a California Book Award, and third and fourth chapbooks, Wild Mercy (2011) and Following Hay (2013), have been published by Finishing Line Press. Her work can also be seen in anthologies such as Echoes (2012), Keeping Time: 150 Years of Journal Writing (Passager Press), Chopin with Cherries, A Tribute in Verse (Moonrise Press), Music In The Air (Outrider Press), and The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed (Sixteen Rivers).

Her first full-length poetry collection, The Place of Our Meeting, was published by Finishing Line Press in January 2018 and nominated for the California Book Award.