Liane Kupferberg Carter
Mr. Silverman wasn’t as handsome as the dreamy Mr. Steinfink who taught American History. No matter. I loved him. Fiercely. Fervently. Ardently. As only a moody and intense fourteen year old can worship a man of 25. It was 1968, when many draft-age men became teachers in order to avoid being sent to Vietnam. All our junior high school teachers were young, virile, and catnip to teenage girls.
Ira Silverman taught ninth grade English, and looked the professorial part: horn rimmed glasses, blazers with leather elbow patches. He was sarcastic and sensitive, a seductive combination. I would linger after class, waiting for him to notice that we were kindred souls. But Celia Schwartz, a flushed girl with googly green eyes, was always hanging around him too.
“Poetry is about compression,” he told us. “Learning to see is a discipline. Open your senses and drink the world in.”
Celia showed up the next morning with a pile of poems she’d written, quietly but effectively muscling me aside. Not to be outdone, I decided to pen poetry too.
Every afternoon that fall and winter, as Dusk Descended (as I would no doubt have written it then), I would wrench up my bedroom window and kneel in front of the hissing radiator, lowering its hinged lid to use its warm surface as my desk. I would press my nose to the rusted storm window, and suck in a cold sliver of metallic air. Feverishly I wrote, recording every passing sensation, as the sky turned cold magenta blue or fiery peach, and cars whooshed by below, their headlight beams sweeping the walls. I reveled in a voluptuous melancholy, closing out the sounds of my father’s tired tread passing my door, and my mother’s increasingly irritated calls to come set the table. When I wrote, the world fell away.
“I’m going to be a poet when I grow up,” I told my mother.
“That’s lovely, dear,” she said. “And how are you going to make a living?”
Comments like that made me furious. She didn’t understand. But I was sure Mr. Silverman did. Our world of poetry was private. Sacred. Mr. Silverman understood me. Sophisticated and sardonic, he was the grown up world that lay ahead.
Nearly every morning I would shyly hand him a new sheaf of poems I’d stayed up late to type on an old Olympia manual typewriter. He would pepper the onionskin pages with succinct comments: “Show don’t tell.” “Too obvious.” “Too emotional.” “Not enough.” “Too much.” And, thrillingly: “Very good, almost excellent.”
All that year, while I giggled with girlfriends, passed notes in study hall and tried to act worldly when we whispered about sex, I filled page after diary page with such overwrought outbursts as “How much longer can I endure this pain? It is shattering the frail wreck of my sensitive soul.”
In class one morning, as Mr. Silverman explained poetic license, some students passed around a photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s newly released album cover. I glanced at it, then stared. Oh my God, John and Yoko were naked. I had never seen a naked man. John Lennon had pubic hair? I looked up at Mr. Silverman with revulsion. Did he look like that, under his suit? I felt my face blaze.
“Man, I just don’t get it,” David Duffy was insisting to Mr. Silverman. “What does a poetic license look like?”
“I just told you, poetic license isn’t an object,” Mr. Silverman said, exasperated. “It’s a concept. It’s the writer’s freedom to break the conventional rules of language.”
“But where do you get it?” David insisted. God, he was so dense. Mr. Silverman looked at me, and rolled his eyes.
“At the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said.
Day by day I handed him piles of poems, signing my name in lower case letters. I poured out my passion. The florid feelings simply flowed. “Were I to cry my longing to the cool wind and leave myself behind!” I scrawled. “Ah how heavy it is to be – how lonely this night!”
Breathlessly I brought him my yearbook at the end of the school term. I longed for a sign. Something that finally acknowledged and settled the bond between us. He wrote, “Without any writing on it / a piece of paper can be held / any way you like / and it will be bright / and pure / Empty your mind of the scribblings of darkness / and live. / Love Lee Love.”
I pored and puzzled over it for days, not sure if I was gratified or insulted. Scribblings? Darkness? Was he saying I was in some metaphoric dark place? That my poems were merely a teen’s overheated outpourings? Was he urging me to stop writing about an imagined life and start living it? But what of that last line? Was he secretly telling me to love him, or to leave him alone?
My mother gave me permission to invite Mr. Silverman to our family’s junior high graduation celebration. I pictured him standing on the front step of my parents’ house, and shivered with delicious anticipation. “Ira,” I kept thinking. “At last I’ll call him Ira.” He would finally see the woman in me. I would confess my love. He would confess his. We would kiss. There would be breathless words. And then…
That night I waited. Then I telephoned his house several times, letting the phone ring and ring. All through dinner, I watched the door of the restaurant, hoping he would appear. He never did.
He never called.
I never saw him again.