Freshman Composition

Cynthia turns her work in on time
all semester, though in October,
her mother slips into a coma
for two and a half essays, then dies.
I clip the obituary

and slide it into her hands the same
morning that LaShondra brings her baby
to class. The rest of us, homogeneous
and white, stumble over the baby’s
name, Ejeeii. LaShondra repeats
it three times, like an incantation,

finally writes it on the board. The name
means “strong African warrior.” He wakes
and I dance him around the room
in his Baby Gap sleeper and tiny
red Nikes, calm his cries by reviewing
comma splices. “Oh look, you’ve bored

him back to sleep.” We all laugh, but inside
I fear it’s the one true comment
for the semester. Power-suited
in beige and black, once I was sure
I could make a difference, but as his mother
struggles over one more “C” paper,
one that will still lack

development and organization,
I wonder if I’ve cheated her
of early-morning lullabies
and given nothing she needs
in return. Or if Cynthia resents

hours spent on those first papers
while her mother’s death hovered,
unexpected as a pop quiz.
And what of the other twenty-four
who’ve shared this bare, tiled room

for thirteen weeks? They write and write
while I, with my back turned,
scribble revision tips on the board,
a chalky scrawl erased
with the slam of a classroom door.

Janice Northerns


Janice Northerns grew up on a rural Texas farm with a large dose of fundamentalist religion, leaving her feeling like an outsider at times. She enjoys exploring this outsider status through her poetry.

Her poems have appeared in Conference of College Teachers of English Studies, Southwestern American Literature, The Cape Rock, College English, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Poem, Sweet Tree Review, Visual Arts Collective – poetry, and elsewhere.

She currently lives in Kansas, where she teaches English at a community college.

© 2017