W. D. Ehrhart  

What You Gave Me

    Even when we were nine,
you were what I wanted to be:
the brave one plunging into the creek's
green slime barefooted, catching snakes
barehanded with a careless skill
and courage I could only dream of.

I swam in your wake,
sat on the bench while you became
State Champ, watched you lift my weight
in solid iron as the years passed.

You bought the motorcycle,
always waited for the girls to call,
and the phone was always ringing.
I got the grades, but who puts grades
in the family den like trophies?
What teenaged girl ever yearned
to be kissed by a straight-A student?

Once, much later, we were twenty-two,
some girl you liked had dumped you.
We were sitting in your kitchen.
"I feel so blue," you said, "I wish
I knew a way to say it like you can."

I'd never realized you might envy me,
that being held back in school
had bothered you. Your silence
always seemed so strong,
not the cowed shyness of a boy
well-meaning grown-ups had convinced
that he was dumb.

Every time I get a student
who's a little slow with words,
I remember that you never seemed
to notice how I waded in the creek
with sneakers on, the snakes each time
somehow just barely out of reach,
that you knew but didn't care
I wet the bed till I was nearly twelve,

that kids who can't articulate the blues
are songbirds locked in small cages
alone in darkened rooms.
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    Copyright © 1990 by W. D. Ehrhart
Just for Laughs, Viet Nam Generation & Burning Cities Press, 1990
This poem currently appears in Thank You For Your Service: Collected Poems, McFarland & Company, 2019

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