Fire at Night

Joe was a very old man in an old world.
He was fat and had thick glasses.
He wore all black.
And taught algebra.

He could barely see.
When I wrote my exam in pencil,
He couldn’t see it.
“Mr. Gee, you give me nothing, I give you nothing,” he wrote alongside my ‘F’.

He liked to sit at his old wooden desk,
And make the students chant my name as fast as they could.
“Jim Gee!”, “Jim Gee!”, “Jim Gee!”, they chanted while he pounded out each beat on the desk with his chalk bottle.
He liked that my name was short and you could say it fast.

We did algebra problems at the board.
He told us we must draw x’s one way and not the other.
I made my x wrong, the way the Nuns had told us to in grade school.
He said, “Mr. Gee, that’s not how we makes x’s here”.

I did it again and he covered me in chalk head to toe,
Pounding me slowly with a large dusty chalk eraser.
I have never made x’s any way since save his.
That’s mainly what I learned in Algebra class.

Larry was another very old man in the same old world.
He was tall but stooped and crippled, standing with the aid of two canes.
He wore all black.
And lectured from behind a wooden podium atop a stage.

We were afraid of him.
It was rumored that there was a blood stain next to the desk in his room.
I saw it once when I was called to see him, at least I think I did.
They said he had hit a wayward student with one of his canes.

In class, we sat in old wooden desks with chairs attached.
One day my friend Paul whispered to another student.
Larry dropped his canes and leapt from the stage,
Picked up the desk, with Paul in it, and carried it out the door,
And threw it into the courtyard below, Paul and all.

Of course we were all shocked.
I was shaking because I had thought Larry was coming for me.
None of us ever talked in class again.
And we believed all the more devoutly in the blood stain on the floor.

John was yet another very old man in that old world.
He was tall and absent minded.
He wore all black.
He taught two different classes
And carried a book with the names of his students in it everywhere.

He started each class by calling attendance from his book.
As he called each name, the designated student said “Yes”.
But John usually called the names from the other class.
We each said yes anyway and John went happily on.

One day John was on a roll, oblivious we were there.
He was talking about a story in the Bible.
He said, “If you squeeze an orange, what do you get?”
“Orange juice”.

Then he said, “If you squeeze a human being, what do you get?”
He stopped, said nothing more, and went on to something else.
Human being juice?
I didn’t know then, but I do know now, what he meant.

Bucky was a very old man too in that old world.
He was very frail.
He wore all black.
He called on each of us in turn to translate Greek out loud.

I honestly believed Bucky had known Plato.
He was that old.
He sat silently after we each recited our Greek.
And just wrote a grade we never saw in an old book.

I was no good at Greek.
So to pass the exams I just memorized the English.
And tried to line it up with whatever Greek showed up on the test.
It was easier than actually learning Greek.

On one exam, Bucky gave me an ‘A’.
He even wrote “Good job, Mr. Gee”.
But, then, he wrote, “It is odd that there is one more paragraph of English than there is of Greek”.
I had gone too far, missing where the Greek had actually ended.

A bonfire raged in the dark cloister.
Hormones raged as well in young male bodies around the fire.
Teens dressed all in black.
Very young men in a very old world.

It was Easter Eve late at night.
A vigil waiting for the Resurrection.
We went to Midnight Mass.
And then drank hot chocolate together in the old large drafty refractory.

That world is long dead.
And it will have no resurrection.
It died when the fire went out.
An old man myself now, in the Dark Night I seek kindling I cannot find.