Dwayne’s face neared purple as he faced the class. From my seat several rows back I could see the perspiration beading on his forehead like raindrops on a window. And as he read, they began to flow down his forehead onto his cheeks; some dropped onto his tie, looking like dark stains of blood.
“My poem,” he said, making poem rhyme with Rome, “is for the grave of G. Iron, 1809–1849. All it said on that stone—except for when he was born and died—was ‘Nevermore.’[i] So here goes, I guess?” He looked in terror at Ms. Medwin, standing to the side, and she nodded and smiled.
“My father was a working man.
A blacksmith, big and solid
As a statue in the park.
As soon as I could stand,
He made me work beside him,
All day long. Every day.
I hated it. I hated him.
My mother only shrugged and sighed.
And when my father died—”
“Oh, that rhymes!” cried Dwayne. “Sorry! I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” said Ms. Medwin. “Just go on.”
Dwayne went on:
“And when my father died
(A beautiful horse kicked him in the head),
I left this town one minute
After the funeral.
I trained birds for circuses and magicians.
Then, many years later, I came back here
To die of the brain cancer
That had kicked me in the head.”
There was a short silence. I don’t think any of us knew what to do. Dwayne Hardfall, for as long as I had known him, had never taken seriously any school assignment. I looked over at his group of friends. They were staring at him as if he were a new kid in class. And, of course, in a way he was.
Ms. Medwin began the applause, which became pretty loud, almost football-game loud. While Dwayne’s face darkened even more, then broke into a smile so goofy-looking that a lot of people laughed. (I among them.) A hard look from Dwayne ended the laughter instantly.
“That was wonderful, Dwayne,” said Ms. Medwin. And I kind of agreed—not because it was a great poem or anything but because Dwayne had done it. All I’d ever seen when I’d looked at Dwayne before this moment was, well, a side of beef. A side of beef wearing clothes. And now he’d shown me—shown us all—that he had a mind. And a heart.