In a one-room schoolhouse

a cast iron pot belly stove

burned through

great stacks of wood

and sometimes mice

whose necks had snapped

in shiny steel traps.


We all cheered and clapped

when our hero 

dangled them by their tails 

and flung their tiny corpses

into the fire.


He was a lanky man

with horn-rimmed glasses

and graying hair, who seemed

only a little older than we. 

I’d clap when he told us stories 

from his youth and tall tales

of derring-do that stirred my blood

and made my eyes shine.


I clapped again when his voice rose

to many crescendos 

and crackled with emotion

as he recited the first poem I’d ever heard:

“I must go down to the seas again,

to the vagrant gypsy life.…”


But behind him,

on a hook on the wall,

hung twelve inches of standard issue

pink rubber toughness.

Just in case.

And on that day

two ragged lines

of indifferent students,

girls on the left,

boys on the right,

inched forward.


A rush of air, then whack!

Once on each quivering hand.

Then the blubbering began.


I never clapped again.