Short But Sweet: “Turning the Tables”

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

I was out last week and assigned my advanced English classes a packet of poems with questions for analysis.  All the poems were of fairly recent vintage and deliberately came from a wide variety of sources that weren’t the usual suspects.  One of them was called “Turning the Tables” and was written by Joel Dias-Porter aka DJ Renegade:

Turning the Tables
(for Eardrum)

First hold the needle
like a lover’s hand
Lower it slowly
let it tongue
the record’s ear
Then cultivate
the sweet beats
blooming in the valley
of the groove
Laugh at folks
that make requests
What chef would let
the diners determine
Which entrees
make up the menu?
Young boys
think it’s about
flashy flicks
of the wrist
But it’s about filling the floor
with the manic
language of dance
About knowing the beat
of every record
like a mama knows
her child’s cries
Nobody cares
how fast you scratch
Cuz it ain’t about
soothing any itch
It’s about how many hairstyles
are still standing
At the end of the night.*

This poem is flat-out amazing and it can be found in an equally amazing collection of poetry called The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, which I picked up because I recognized the name of one of the editors, Nate Marshall, from Louder Than a Bomb, the 2010 documentary about spoken word poetry.  The questions that accompanied the poem were as follows:

  1. What is the setting of this poem?
  2. Why would he compare himself to a chef?
  3. This is a free verse poem, which means it’s consciously without rhyme and meter.  However, he still seems to give it a sense of rhythm and flow.  How does he do that and how would you describe it?
  4. What do you like about this poem?

At best, I’d say these questions range from very basic to slightly analytical, and I’m not sure that I entirely do the poem justice.  Like I said, this was one of several poems in a packet for sub work that usually has to be straightforward, although we did talk briefly about the poem the next class.  Anyway, I was grading the packets the other day and the responses to question #1 stood out:

  • A gala
  • A fancy restaurant
  • An ’80s diner
  • In the past, like the 1950s.

Very few of my students actually answered that this was in a club, or seemed to realize that the main character (as it is) of the poem is a deejay (yunno, even though “DJ” is part of the poet’s pseudonym).  In fact, one student identified records as being from the “late 1800s/1900s.”

I let all of that slide because I honestly wound up laughing as I was reading those answers.  I never realized how far removed from the idea of a deejay spinning records in a club is from my students’ lives.  Sure, I teach in a district that is quite rural in places and the predominant flavor of music among the student body is country, but based on the amount of hip hop and rap I hear blaring from car stereos in the student parking lot and the amount in which they are connected to the world and popular culture via the cell phones to which they are umbilically attached, I assumed they had at least some idea of the poem’s setting.

Of course, when you assume … and I apparently did–although, an “’80s Diner?”  Is that like The Max from Saved By the Bell?  I mean, I grew up in the ’80s and ate at plenty of diners.  They were pretty much like diners we have today except with a slightly more pastel color scheme.

Anyway, instead of spending the rest of this post ragging on the kids these days for their lack of cultural knowledge, I’ll highlight two things I learned from this.  First, there is a reason why we will dive into poetry and really try to get deep within it, even though most poems are not very long.  There’s so much imagery in this poem that a few questions on a worksheet (when you have a sub) don’t do it nearly enough justice.  The poem also has its own feel, one that is nearly tangible.  Plus, it clues you, the reader, into a culture or scene that’s outside your realm and gives you a taste of that, which is so hard to do in so few words.

Second, it continues to prove the point I’ve made more than once, which is that there is nothing wrong with assigning reading.  I see post after post about letting kids do what they want when it comes to reading, as if dropping a book in their lap and telling them we’re going to discuss it is like putting a chain around their neck (no, really, I’ve seen the metaphor in use on Twitter) and while you should always be able to read what you want to read, if you never branch out of one genre or step away from one particular author, your view is going to be so narrow, you’ll never actually experience much of anything.  Part of my job as an English teacher is to broaden literary horizons, which is why I go for genres and authors they may not be familiar with.  I want them to grow as readers, and if I can’t give them the opportunity to see what’s out there beyond the YA or manga shelves at the library, then I’m not doing it right.

*A quick note:  I tried to recreate the formatting of the poem as found in the collection, but apparently WordPress doesn’t like it when you do that.  My apologies to the writer; any misrepresentation is unintentional.


From the Bookshelf: Teenage Wasteland



The cover to “Who’s Next,” the album that contains “Baba O’Reily,” a song that is often mistitled as “Teenage Wasteland” and therefore gives the story its name.

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.


As I sat down to type this post, I took a glance at the italicized intro that I’ve got at the top of the screen there and realized that this entry is a bit of a cheat because it does come from an English textbook.  However, it doesn’t come from the English textbook that my school district purchased for the 10th grade, so it counts as “outside” the textbook.

Anyway, “Teenage Wasteland” is a story written by Anne Tyler in the 1970s that takes place in what I guess you could have referred to as a “normal” suburban community and features what for the time would have been considered an “average, normal family” of two parents and two kids:  Daisy and Matt and their two children, Donny and Amanda, who both attend private school.  Donny is currently in high school and has been getting into trouble as of late, which is the source of an enormous amount of consternation for Daisy, who can’t understand why her son’s grades are slipping and constantly blames herself.  Eventually, in an effort to solve the problem, Daisy hires a tutor named Cal, who doesn’t seem to tutor and instead allows a group of kids to hang out around his house and tries to dictate what the school and Donny’s parents should do and doesn’t seem to be concerned that Donny’s grades slip even further.  Eventually, Donny gets expelled because beer is found in his locker and while Cal tries to get him to fight the system, Daisy decides she’s had enough and puts him in public school.  Soon after, Donny runs away and the story ends with the feeling that the family is broken in some wayer is known for having a realistic approach to the portrayal of a family (I recently read her novel A Spool of Blue Thread, which was very good) and because the plot is easy to follow and the characters are vivid, this story is a good example of how stories can seem simple yet be much more complex or nuanced.  My students find each of the characters easy to identify because they are not an extraordinary family in any way; furthermore, by making them be a middle/upper-middle class suburban family, Tyler avoids any conflict that the parents may have regarding money and allows for the plot detail that Donny has been through more than one private school (which I am sure is a subtle nod to another troubled teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield).

It’s all “ordinary” in the same way that the Judith Guest’s Jarrett Family are the titular Ordinary People, and that was important at the time because there was a sense (and still is) that “these problems” “don’t happen here,” meaning that bad things don’t happen to people in “nice” neighborhoods.  Crime and the crime brought about by certain drugs is the problem for places you’d see on the news and drinking, smoking and pot … well, that’s not a problem, it’s just kids being kids.

So Donny runs away and in order to figure out how and why this happens, my students and I do two things.  First, we do a character analysis of all five of the characters featured in the story–although to be honest, Donny’s sister, Amanda, is mentioned in passing a few times and rarely, if ever, actually appears, but the fact that she’s constantly ignored is important.  I like the idea of a character-driven story and how you can look at the same events through the eyes of four or five different people, and that allows us to gather the information we need to do the second thing, which is figuring out who’s responsible.

Granted, assigning blame isn’t a hard thing for anyone to do in our culture–I think that half of the content on the internet is devoted to blaming someone for something–but there’s assigning blame and there’s determining responsibility and the latter is a much more informed decision.  After the class has described and discussed each of the characters, working through their strengths and weaknesses, I then ask the question: “Who is responsible for Donny’s running away?” Over the course of our discussion see how Donny, both of his parents, Cal, and “the system” are all responsible for what happens to the kid.  Donny never takes responsibility for his own actions, Daisy is wildly inconsistent when it comes to disciplining her son, Matt really does nothing and basically figures his wife is going to take care of it, Cal is manipulative and seems more concerned with himself, and the system itself can be more punitive than it has to be.

This has, in the past, led to conversations about what makes a good parent, what makes a good teacher or principal, and whether or not kids who get in trouble should be punished for what they do.  And to their credit, my students have very often presented a balanced view and are able to discuss when I push back on some of their points.  There’s a lot to glean from Tyler’s story about how characters can be complex as well as how certain problems can be nuanced and have no easy solution.

Tyler’s stories have never been collected in a single volume and like I said, I got this out of a random English textbook in our book room, but I did find a .pdf copy online.  It’s not exactly “legal” but if you’re interested in reading it you, can read it here:  “Teenage Wasteland”