After the Bell
John L. Stanizzi
Big Table Publishing
Perfect bound, 68 pgs
Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
In a time when dozens of states are slashing teachers’ pensions and defunding public education, John L. Stanizzi’s latest collection of poems, After the Bell, reminds us how much of a difference teachers can make. In forms that range from the villanelle to narrative, Stanizzi depicts the relationship he had with students over a long career, comforting them during a miscarriage or the death of a fellow classmate. A teacher myself, I found great pathos and humanity in the poet’s work, and even some humor, especially in the poems about correcting the same spelling mistakes again and again.
The collection opens with the poem “Text,” and it highlights some of the issues that reoccur throughout the book, especially the fine line Stanizzi walks between being a teacher/authority figure and someone willing to comfort students in times of crisis. The poem opens with a student describing pictures of her unborn baby, images of “an ultrasound/gray smears of/what she said were a nose, mouth.” Yet, the last few lines of the poem take a dramatic turn and the “shouts of forged joy” are dashed when the student texts the teacher and writes, “hope ur good LUV UUUUU lol/by the way i lost it.” Those last few lines illustrate just how much the students trust the teacher and just how much the teacher cares for the students.
Stanizzi also addresses the challenge of teaching shortly after 9/11. In the poem “S-Plan,” he describes teaching at Bacon Academy in October 2001 and running through the terrorism drills. The poem draws parallels between the post-9/11 world and the Cold War, duck-and-cover drills. He writes:
I thought of my own youth—
different time, same fear—
the old days of “duck and cover,”
air raid horn baying at the spring sky,
and all of us either balled up under our desks,
or standing, boy girl boy girl
against the cool, cool
painted cinder block walls
in the shadowy hallways of St. Mary’s,
the perfume of lilacs
in the breeze that breathed there,
or before me, in England,
the shelters in underground tubes,
railway arches, subways,
and my Auntie Elsie,
staring in dread at the ceiling
in the shelter in her cellar.
The poem ends with the teacher huddled in the corner with costumed children, fear in their eyes behind the masks of the costumes, as they wait out the drill, just as the poet waited out the duck-and-cover drills and survived the paranoia of that time.
The collection also stresses the importance of seasoned teachers acting as mentors to new teachers, especially to help them deal with various crises that will arise, such as the death of students. In “I Tell New Teachers That Some of Their Kids Won’t Make It…,” the poet writes:
….because in the first month
of my first year,
when the truck hit that tree
and three kids I didn’t know
and the students I had just met
were collapsing in the halls
I had no idea what to do.
Stanizzi concludes the poem by admitting teachers will never know what to do in situations like the ones described throughout the poem, but they should at least be warned and prepared for similar situations that will ultimately arise.
One of the strongest poems in the collection, “October Downpour,” dedicated to the poet’s 12th grade students, is a tender moment that illustrates just how fleeting youth and high school years are. The poem captures one moment in time- the teacher writing with the class. “October Downpour” echoes a theme that runs throughout Stanizzi’s work, that after the final bell, the memories will remain.
These words came in the rain
and in the astonishing presence of you,
a reminder that it will soon be late
and that memories will remain
of a day in October
when we shared the rain.
Throughout the collection, Stanizzi is most comfortable writing longer narrative poems, and the form suits the content in capturing the ups and downs of a long teaching career and also capturing the voices of the students, be it through text message lingo or actual dialogue. But Stanizzi shows his prowess for form by including a villanelle and a series of crown sonnets at the end of the book. Above all, the poet has created a fine, tender collection that is illuminating and proves teaches can make a difference.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in North Chicago Review, Oklahoma Review, Los Angeles Times, Boston Literary Magazine, and other publications. He is the author of the chapbook, Front Man, and the full-length collection All That Remains.